The dangers of stone throwing

Israel has charged five Palestinian teenagers for having allegedly thrown stones at a settler’s car. They face 25 years to life imprisonment for attempted murder. Yet again, the system punishes the crime while being blind to the triggering circumstances.

Federica Marsi
12 August 2013
The parents of Ali Shamlawi

The parents of Ali Shamlawi speak to reporters Credit:Daniel Tepper www.danieltepper.us

Ali Shamlawi’s mother cannot hold back the tears as she repeats the words pronounced by a soldier while pushing her son out of the house: “Kiss goodbye to your mother, because you might not see her again”. If condemned, the boy will return home at the age of 41, in the best-case scenario. Ali is one of the five Palestinian teenagers facing 25 years to life imprisonment for having allegedly thrown stones at a settler’s car, severely injuring a two year old.

Youths accused of throwing stones are rarely convicted for more than one year. In this case, the prosecution claims that the boys “intended to kill” and should therefore be tried for attempted murder rather than for stone throwing. The harshness of the punishment requested by the prosecution against Mohammad Suleiman, Ammar Souf, Mohammed Kleib, Tamer Souf and Ali Shamlawi, all 16 and 17 years old, is unprecedented. 

The episode took place on March 14 in Hares, a West Bank village in the Salfit governorate, and has been widely reported by Israeli media as a ‘terrorist attack’. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited the incident during a ceremony at Mount Herzl national cemetery, calling for national union in the fight against terrorism: “We shall not retreat, not surrender, not give in ... Terror is not a blow from above, it is the work of humans, or subhumans. We shall defeat them." Prisoner support organization Addameer, defending Ali Shamlawi, believes the high level of media attention and political exploitation of the episode could negatively influence the court’s sentence.

Adva Biton, mother of the two-year-old toddler injured in the crash, is a resident in the nearby settlement of Yakir. She blames the accident on stone throwers. But no witnesses can testify to having seen the boys on the hill overlooking Route 5, where the car crash took place. The driver of the truck against which the car collided first testified that he pulled over because of a flat tire, but later changed his declaration to match Biton’s. Meanwhile the families of the arrested boys insist on the innocence of their children, who that day crossed the highway to look for almonds on the nearby mountain.

Physical abuse in Israeli jails

A dozen soldiers stormed Ali Shamlawi’s house at 3 am on March 17, without providing a reason for their presence. The boy was arrested and taken to the Jalame military detention centre and then transferred to the Israeli prison of Megiddo. The arrest is in contravention of the Fourth Geneva convention, which prohibits the detention of prisoners outside the occupied Palestinian territories. The family has accused the jailers of physically abusing Ali, who suffers from severe headaches as a result of constant beating. His father recalls begging the soldiers not to hit his son on the shoulder, as he had just undergone an operation.  His pleading was ignored: “When we managed to visit Ali in jail, after two months from his detention, he told us that they would always beat him there on purpose”.

The boy was not granted a lawyer until March 21, after he signed a confession. His mother claims he was forced to admit to a crime he did not commit: “Ali was detained in an isolation cell, without food or water for 14 hours, without being able to sleep. The soldiers threatened that if he did not confess, they would jail his sister and me. He is a 16 year-old child. How much do you think he could resist under this pressure before confessing?” According to Defence for Children International, between 2001 and 2010, 645 complaints were filed against the Israeli Security Agency interrogators for torture of Palestinian prisoners, but none were investigated.  

No guilt for settlement expansion

Like Ali and the other boys, most of the children detained for stone throwing are arrested from locations close to friction points, such as settlements or roads reserved for settlers and the Israeli army. Between 2005 and 2010, 835 minors were persecuted for stone throwing, according to the Israeli human rights association B’Tselem. The Salfit governorate is the site of a particular intense policy of maximum territorial control that seeks to create contiguity between the settlements and Israel at the expense of Palestinian land. In addition to their youngest son, the Shamlawi family has lost part of their private land and income due to the occupation.

The resulting paradox is that five teenagers are being detained for having allegedly thrown stones at people or vehicles which should not have been present in the area to begin with, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. While Palestinians who breach the Israeli military law are jailed, no measures are taken against the more than 300,000 settlers illegally controlling over 42 percent of the West Bank, in contravention of Israel’s international commitments. Israeli human rights association Yesh Din reports that over 91 percent of the investigations into episodes of settler violence, including igniting cultivated land, beating Palestinian farmers, and expelling Palestinians attempting to harvest crops, are concluded without indictment.

Palestinian-only military courts

The boys will be judged by a military court, presided over by military officers in regular or army reserve service. Amnesty International among others has raised doubts as to whether such a court can truly provide an independent and impartial trial. Civilian law grants settler children the right to have their parents present during the interrogation. In contrast, none of the five boys were allowed to see a lawyer or a family member. According to Israeli military law, minors can be denied a lawyer for up to 90 days, whereas the civil law sets a maximum of 48 hours.

Sixteen years old Tamer Souf is still unable to see his parents. Permission has been granted only to the two youngest brothers, who have to bear the psychological trauma of visiting their brother in jail and ascertaining his physical conditions. No explanation has been given as to why the rest of the family is prevented from seeing the boy. Tamer‘s mother is only able to gather a few words before her eyes fill with tears: “I just want to say that it is haram (prohibited) what has happened to these boys. You see them in front of a court, but they are children!”

According to the Prisoner Support Association Addameer, reaching a final decision on the case could take up to two years. The defence fears that a harsh punishment will be enforced to set an example that discourages Palestinians from opposing future settlement activity. Once again, we are faced with a system that is all too eager to punish the crime, while remaining blind to the triggering circumstances.

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