BEIT UMAR, West Bank – The boys were both 15, with the crackly voices and awkward peach fuzz of adolescence. They lived just a few minutes away from one another in the West Bank. And both were accused of throwing stones at vehicles, one day after the other.
But there was a crucial difference that helped to shape each boy’s fate: One was Israeli, and the other Palestinian.
The tale of the two teens provides a stark example of the vast disparities of Israel’s justice system in the West Bank, a contested area at the heart of the elusive search for a lasting peace.
While Israeli settlers in the West Bank fall mostly under civilian rule, Palestinians are subject to Israeli military law. Israeli and Palestinian youths face inequities at every stage in the path of justice, from arrests to convictions and sentencing, according to police statistics obtained by the Associated Press through multiple requests under Israel’s freedom of information law.
The results can ripple for years.
“Jail destroyed his life,” said the Palestinian boy’s father.
Only 53 Israeli settler youths were arrested for stone-throwing over the past six years, the data shows, and 89 percent were released without charge. Six were indicted. Four of those were found “guilty without conviction,” a common sentence for Israeli juveniles that aims not to stain their record. One was cleared. The sixth case was still in court as of October, the most recent information available.
By contrast, 1,142 Palestinian youths were arrested by police over the same period for throwing stones, and 528 were indicted. All were convicted. Lawyers said the penalty is typically three to eight months in military prison.
Israel’s Justice Ministry said more than five Israeli stone-throwers were indicted in the past six years, but declined to provide examples. Itzik Bam, a lawyer who represents Israeli settler youths, said he knew of 20 Israeli minors in the West Bank indicted for stone-throwing in recent years, including six who pleaded guilty and six who were cleared. He said the other cases are still in court.
The police numbers are not comprehensive, because the Israeli army also arrests Palestinian youths, and because the state prosecutor also issues indictments against settlers in more serious cases. However, the gap between the numbers for Israelis and Palestinians is clear and wide.
Israel’s Justice Ministry said the numbers reflect the fact that Palestinians threw more stones than Israelis, rather than unequal treatment.
“Though the legal systems are different – military court versus civil court – the relevant law is implied impartially,” said Yehuda Shefer, a deputy state prosecutor who is head of a Justice Ministry committee for West Bank law enforcement.
The Israeli Justice Ministry said it would like to rehabilitate Palestinian youth, but ends up jailing many offenders because their parents and leaders support their crimes. However, critics accuse Israel of dismissing Israeli crimes as youthful indiscretions, while treating Palestinian youths like hardened criminals.
“Everyone knows there is a problem with the treatment of minors in the West Bank, a systematic discrimination between Israeli minors and Palestinian minors,” said Michael Sfard, an Israeli attorney and Palestinian human rights defender. “Now you have the figures to prove that.”
•Stones have become an iconic weapon in the West Bank, an arid land where they are plentiful. In the past six years, more than half of all arrests of Palestinian youth were over stone-throwing, which Israel claims can be the first step toward militancy. Extremist Israeli settlers have also adopted the tactic.
On Feb. 20, 2012, the Israeli boy joined a group of youths pelting a bus with rocks at the entrance to Bat Ayin, according to police reports. The settlement, located in the southern West Bank between Jerusalem and the biblical city of Hebron, is known for its hardline population.
Police said they targeted the bus because the driver was Arab. The rocks damaged the bus but did not harm the driver.
The boy, whose name cannot be published under local law because he is a minor, was brought to the Hebron region police station at 9 p.m., with his father by his side. In his interrogation, the boy invoked his right to remain silent. He spent a night in the station and four days under house arrest. Then he was freed without charge.
The following day, according to police reports, the Palestinian boy lobbed rocks at Israeli cars zipping past his hometown of Beit Umar, a farming town of 14,000 people perched near an Israeli military tower. Police said he and others wanted to show solidarity with a high-profile Palestinian prisoner on hunger strike in an Israeli jail.
The rocks shattered the front windshield of a white Mazda and damaged three other vehicles on a busy highway. There were no injuries. The incident was caught on tape and broadcast on Israeli evening news.
Two weeks later, at 3:30 a.m., Israeli soldiers kicked down the door to the Palestinian boy’s bedroom, carried him to a jeep, blindfolded him and tied his hands behind his back with plastic handcuffs, he said. He was slapped by soldiers, kept awake all night and placed in a military jail cell with 10 other Palestinian youths, he said.
It would be more than nine months before he could go free.
An Israeli psychological exam conducted in prison found the boy showed signs of anxiety and depression. He told the prison’s clinical psychologist and social worker he looked at a photo of his family to help him sleep, and had nightmares about soldiers killing his relatives. The exam also found he was short-breathed and had a cough, which he said was from soldiers hitting him in the chest during his arrest.
•The West Bank, an expanse of rocky hilltops blanketed in olive trees, is central to the current round of U.S.-brokered peace talks. For Palestinians, the West Bank is the heart of a future state, along with adjacent east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. For Israel, the land known by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria is significant to Jewish heritage and to security.
Since Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, it built more than 100 settlements, creating “facts on the ground” that complicate any future withdrawal. Some 60 percent of the West Bank is under full Israeli control.
Today, more than 350,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, amid roughly 2.5 million Palestinians. The two sides have little interaction, and for the most part live under separate – and often unequal – systems of law.
While the Palestinian Authority governs day-to-day affairs, the Israeli military wields overall control. Palestinians need Israeli permission to enter Israel or to travel abroad through the Jordanian border. Palestinians frequently suffer from poor roads, creaky infrastructure and water shortages.
Israeli settlers, by contrast, are Israeli citizens. They are subject to Israeli law, vote in Israeli elections, move freely in and out of Israel and have access to Israel’s modern infrastructure. They serve in and are protected by the Israeli army.
Israel said extending its laws to Palestinians would be tantamount to annexation, and many of the restrictions, such as military checkpoints, are needed for security. Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Israel tries to help the Palestinians but acknowledged the setup as problematic.
“We’re stuck in this interim status and it’s not good,” he said. “This is precisely the reason we need to resolve this thing through negotiations.”
Israel’s Ministry of Justice said it attaches “great importance” to narrowing the differences in the law regarding juvenile detainees. In 2009, Israel created a juvenile military court. In 2011, it raised the age of minority for Palestinian youth from 16 to 18. And in 2013, it shortened the amount of time a West Bank Palestinian minor can be held under detention, from eight days to, in most cases, one or two days – still double the time allowed for an Israeli minor.
“In our perspective, a minor is a minor,” the Justice Ministry said in a statement.
•The Israeli boy’s journey through the justice system was one of repeated second chances. The middle child of a psychologist mother and a psychiatrist father, he lived and studied at a religious school in Bat Ayin, a rural community of about 200 families.
After his release from jail, the case remained closed until he was arrested again. This time, he was accused of attacking two Palestinians with pepper spray while in possession of a knife and a slingshot decorated with the words “Revenge on Arabs.”
During a court hearing on the pepper spray charge, prosecutors brought up his previous rock-throwing arrest. Only then was he indicted for both offenses.
The Israeli minor pleaded guilty to pepper-spraying but denied throwing rocks. He was put under house arrest for nine months.
While at home, he prepared for Israeli national matriculation exams. During the final three months, he was permitted to attend school. Then he was freed. It was nearly two years after the alleged stone-throwing incident that he finally stood trial, which is ongoing.
There was no such leniency for the Palestinian boy. The youngest of four brothers, he grew up in a modest cement home surrounded by bougainvillea plants and verdant farm lands. He liked to play basketball. His lawyer would only permit the AP to identify him by his first name, Zein.
Zein’s father, a short man with a cigarette perched under his mustache and a forehead carved with lines, described the boy as a B-plus student who could have gone on to a professional career.
That all changed after his arrest. While many Palestinian prisoners accept plea bargains in exchange for reduced imprisonment, the boy pleaded innocent and went to trial. After nine and a half months in prison, he was put under house arrest. Seven months later, he was convicted and sentenced to time already served.
In the ruling, the judge criticized the police interrogator for not asking the boy if he understood his rights, and not giving him the opportunity to consult with his lawyer or parents.
“It appears from the interrogation in this case that the Israeli police do not understand the sensitivity obligated in interrogating juvenile suspects,” military judge Shahar Greenberg wrote.
Requests for response from the Israeli police were not answered.
•In the end, the Israeli and Palestinian teens had one thing in common: Despite Israel’s stated goals, neither was rehabilitated. Instead, both were embraced by communities that condone stone-throwing.
After his release from house arrest, the Israeli boy joined an extremist group known as the “Hilltop Youth” and moved to an unauthorized settlement outpost called Hill 904. These defiant, ideological Jewish teens squat on West Bank hilltops, and attack Palestinians and their property. There was a big celebration when he arrived, the boy said.
He built makeshift homes on the hill for six months and studied Jewish law with his comrades. Then he moved to another outpost. And another. And another.
He still denies throwing rocks, but said it was an acceptable tactic to fight Palestinians, citing a teaching by an extremist rabbi. He described himself as a warrior in an ideological battle for Jewish control of the West Bank.
“Wherever soldiers are needed, I go,” he mumbled outside the courtroom after a recent hearing. He wore the settler youth uniform of long side locks and tattered cargo pants, with a few chin hairs of adolescence. “We are commanded to inherit the land, and to expel (Palestinians).”
When the Palestinian boy got out of jail, he rejoined his 10th-grade class at the end of the school year, but couldn’t catch up and dropped out. For a while he tried to sell knock-off shoes hoarded in his bedroom. Now, he mopes around his parents’ house, not doing much of anything.
“My school wanted me to go back to classes, but I quit,” he said with a shrug, sitting in his parents’ living room in sandals, with greased hair.
His lawyer, Neri Ramati, is appealing the conviction, while prosecutors are seeking a tougher sentence of six more months in jail.
His father, Hisham, said Palestinians have every right to throw stones to achieve independence. He said he and two other sons were all arrested by Israel when they threw stones, unlike his youngest son, who claims innocence.
His father’s conclusion? “He’s a coward.”