|'I thought they would kill me,' Majed Rabah told the court. 'I became very scared and wet my pants' [Reuters]
An Israeli military court has handed down suspended prison sentences to two former soldiers who forced a Palestinian boy to search for suspected booby-traps during the Gaza Strip war.
The ruling, issued on Sunday by the Kastina military court, meant the ex-conscripts, who were last month convicted of reckless endangerment and conduct unbecoming, are free but face a minimum three-month jail term if they commit another crime.
They were also stripped of their ranks as reservists.
While taking part in Israel's ground offensive against Hamas-led fighters on January 15, 2009, the two infantrymen helped storm an apartment building in the Gaza City district of Tel Al-Hawa.
Rounding up residents, they ordered nine-year-old Majed Rabah to check baggage for hidden explosives, said the Israeli verdict, which drew on witnesses accounts.
When Rabah failed to open one bag, the soldiers pulled him back and shot at it, endangering everyone present, the verdict said. The boy was later returned to his family unharmed, and the verdict made no mention of any booby-traps being found.
The soldiers were discharged as first sergeants, and the court demoted them to sergeants. Israel Radio quoted them as saying they would continue to serve as infantry reservists, annual duties that entail training, patrols and even combat.
A military spokeswoman said their suspended sentence would be in force for two years, regardless of whether they are civilians or in uniform.
In Gaza, Rabah cried foul at Sunday's sentence.
"It's unfair. They should have been jailed for a year or two," he said.
Rabah's mother, Afaf, called for the Israelis to be brought up before an international war crimes court.
Efforts to have Israel's military and government leaders prosecuted abroad have spiralled since the war, which killed some 1,400 Palestinians. Such pressure had led to the Israeli military singling out the two soldiers, their lawyers and friends argued. But they welcomed the sentence - dubbed "light" even by Army Radio.
Gerard Horton, a spokesman in the West Bank for Geneva-based rights group Defence for Children International, described the sentence as "unbelievable."
Horton said that the trial appeared designed to deflect attention from accusations in the Goldstone report, a UN-mandated study by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which accused both Israel and the Palestinians of war crimes during the three-week war.
"This is the only case out of those 15 where anyone has been prosecuted - and they get a three-month suspended sentence," he added.
Israel says it went to war to counter cross-border rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza and insists its forces acted with restraint during fighting that killed 13 of its citizens.
According to a military statement, there have been 47 internal Israeli investigations into alleged misconduct by troops, including looting and unlawful killing of a civilian.