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Israel cracks down on accused stone-throwers

Five Palestinian teenagers face life in prison for attempted murder after alleged rock-throwing.

Last updated: 28 Jul 2013 14:21
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A Palestinian woman yells as Israeli police detain a boy during clashes between stone-throwers and police [Reuters]

Hares, Occupied West Bank - Nema Shamlawi's eyes swell up with tears every time she talks about her son, Ali. The 16-year-old has been held in an Israeli prison for the past four months for allegedly throwing stones at settlers. Ali Shamlawi now faces attempted murder charges and life imprisonment.

"Everything I see in the house makes me think of Ali," said the mother-of-six, biting her lower lip and averting her gaze towards the ceiling.

"Our life is very hard because he left us,” she told Al Jazeera from her family's home in the West Bank village of Hares, near Salfit. "Even now, after four months, we can't live without him."

When the soldier said 'kiss your mother', I said: 'I don't need to kiss him because in one hour, he'll be coming back'... He's my youngest child. I can't let him go.

Nema Shamlawi, mother of detained teenager

Ali was arrested on March 17, after more than a dozen Israeli soldiers stormed the family's home at 2:55am. The army held the family in one room for an hour, telling them nothing about why they were there.

Finally, Ali was told to put his shoes on, and "kiss [his] mother", before the soldiers took him away. Later that morning, a police officer called to tell the family the boy was being held at the Jalame military detention centre, giving no other information.

"When the soldier said 'kiss your mother', I said: 'I don't need to kiss him because in one hour, he'll be coming back,'" said Shamlawi. "He's my youngest child. I can't let him go."

The charges

After days of interrogation at Jalame, Ali was transferred to Megiddo prison in northern Israel and, on April 29, more than a month later, the teenager and four others from Hares - all aged 16 and 17 - were formally charged over a stone-throwing incident.

The army alleges on the evening of March 14, the five boys threw stones at yellow-plated Israeli cars driving towards Tel Aviv along Route 5 - a highway to the Israeli mega-settlement of Ariel and other illegal settlements - for more than 30 minutes.

The five Palestinian teenagers each face 20 charges of attempted murder and a potential sentence of life imprisonment. They deny the rock-throwing accusations.

"They decided to throw stones and intended to hit cars and break windows. They deny intent to kill," said a senior Israeli military officer, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

"In circumstances in which they perpetrated the offence, [however], the circumstances bring to the conclusion that they had an intent to kill."

The officer said after the incident, 20 Israeli drivers filed insurance claims stating stones hit their cars. However, there is no eyewitness testimony of what happened, nor were complaints filed. The police received no calls at the time the boys were allegedly throwing stones.

Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian youth [Reuters]

The officer said confessions signed by the boys - which Al Jazeera has been unable to see to confirm - and insurance claims are the state's principal pieces of evidence.

Government pressure

The story made headlines after a three-year-old Israeli girl, Adele Biton, was hospitalised for four months with severe head injuries when her mother's car collided with a truck near Ariel on March 14. Police say her vehicle stopped abruptly after being hit with rocks.

Vowing to catch those responsible for the collision involving the Biton family, which lives in the illegal West Bank settlement of Yakir, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described stones as "lethal weapons".

The army said more than 4,370 stones were thrown at Israelis in 2012, and that this year 1,195 had been thrown as of April.

Military law categorises stone-throwing as a serious offence punishable by up to 20 years in prison, but usually Palestinian youths accused of doing so do not spend more than a year in jail.

The Israeli military officer said factors particular to the Hares case merited filing attempted murder charges, but prosecutors would not seek life sentences.

When asked by Al Jazeera why not, the officer replied: "Because [the case] doesn't warrant a life sentence.”

Torture allegations

According to Nema Shamlawi, her son was physically abused during his arrest and interrogation and denied access to a lawyer for five days.

She said he was kept alone in a dark, stuffy cell measuring just two by one metres, in which he was denied sleep and was psychologically pressured.

Palestinian children arrested... are systematically subject to degrading treatment, and often to acts of torture, are interrogated in Hebrew, a language they do not understand, and sign confessions in Hebrew in order to be released.

United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child

He was eventually forced to sign a confession, written in Hebrew, despite the fact he does not speak the language, she said.

"He was under threat when he made the statement. They said: 'We will arrest your mother and your sister,'" Shamlawi said.

Ali is still being held in Megiddo prison, where he has been suffering from severe headaches as a result of mistreatment, said his mother. His next court hearing remains undetermined.

Israel's army denied any abuses took place to secure confessions from the boys, or during their arrest and detention. The army said the teenagers' statements were written in Arabic.

But Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights groups have accused Israel of systematically abusing and violating the rights of Palestinian children, including obtaining confessions under threats and torture.

In February, UNICEF reported that Israel's mistreatment of Palestinian children subject to its military laws is "widespread, systematic and institutionalised".

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child reported in June that: "Palestinian children arrested by the state party military and police are systematically subject to degrading treatment, and often to acts of torture, are interrogated in Hebrew, a language they do not understand, and sign confessions in Hebrew in order to be released."

In a recent written judgment on a stone-throwing case, Israeli military court Judge Major Shahar Greenberg found the police investigator threatened the suspect and coached other Palestinian youth to falsely incriminate him.

The judge also criticised the fact that Israeli police do not videotape interrogations, and often question minors when they are extremely tired.

"One cannot ignore the heavy feeling, felt throughout the entire case, that the Israel police have not assimilated their legal obligations," Judge Greenberg wrote.

Military courts provide little justice

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Israel is a signatory, stipulates the detention and imprisonment of children should be used "only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time".

Palestinian teens face life in jail for throwing rocks [Reuters]

Despite this, Israel has arrested and detained more than 8,000 Palestinian children, some as young as 12, since 2000 - mostly for throwing stones - and about 700 Palestinian children continue to be arrested annually, according to Save the Children.

As of June 1, Israel was holding 238 Palestinian children, including 44 under the age of 16, in detention.

In 2009, Israel set up a juvenile military court system to try Palestinian youths from the occupied territories. Two years later, it lifted the court's minimum age from 16 to 18, but sentencing provisions were left unaffected and young people still face the same punishment as adults.

The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said the change had failed to bring about "meaningful change” to the treatment of minors.

It also found, of the 835 Palestinian minors prosecuted in Israeli military courts in the West Bank for stone-throwing between 2005-10, only one was acquitted. In 2010, almost all of the cases - 99.74 percent - resulted in convictions.

Despite this, Nema Shamlawi hasn't lost hope that her son, Ali, will soon return home, and she continues to fight for his release.

"I don't want anything more than justice." she said. "I want justice for my son."

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