At midnight on February 20, the soldiers "came down to the village from the mountains," surrounded Ja'far's house, banged hard on the door, woke everyone up and demanded that Ja'far come along for interrogation.

In the months prior to his arrest, several of his friends were similarly detained - all residents of the village of Kharbatha al Musbah, which nestles among the hills, ravines, olive groves, army roadblocks and dirt tracks southwest of Ramallah. Last year, at least some of these arrests were effected using the "neighbor routine": Two brothers, Nader and Mamduh, were arrested that way in July 2002. Someone knocked on the door sometime after 2 A.M. "The army is here," the neighbor told them, whereupon the army took them away for immediate interrogation in the middle of the night. And at Nahhalin, west of Bethlehem, on March 24 at night, a boy named Bilal was hustled away to be interrogated.

Presumably these four arrests were included in due course in routine Israel Defense Forces updates made to journalists via their beepers, to reappear afterward in the morning news bulletins: "The IDF last night arrested 13 suspects and others wanted for interrogation throughout the West Bank." But Ja'far and Nader were 15-and-a-half when detained, Mamduh was 17 and Bilal had just turned 14 the day before he was arrested (all the names are fictitious).

The urgent interrogation requiring that they be hauled off in the middle of the night usually involved the suspicion that they'd been throwing stones at Israeli vehicles. The most serious allegations concerned Bilal, the 14-year-old: Suspected of burning electricity poles, as well as rock-throwing.

Over the last two years, hundreds of minors under 18 and even under 16 have been detained in this fashion. Israeli jails, prisons and detention facilities now hold some 300 Palestinian minors: Some are awaiting trial, some have already been tried for various security-related offenses - from rock-throwing (the majority) to an intent to perpetrate, or help perpetrate, a suicide attack.

They had the wrong kid

During the past two years, the average age of detained minors has dropped, while the severity of the alleged offenses has increased. Attorney Khaled Quzmar of Defense for Children International (DCI), which has represented minors for years at Israeli military judicial proceedings, notes that before the intifada, 95 percent of the cases his office handled dealt with suspected stone-throwing. In the last two years, he says, "more than 15 percent" of the cases involving minors that reach his organization concern alleged involvement with weapons, throwing Molotov cocktails, or terror incidents. In the data from his organization, 71 percent of minor Palestinian detainees in 2001 were under 14; in 2002, the figure was 22 percent. Meanwhile, there has been a drop in the proportion of 15- and 16-year-olds: from 43 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2002. The proportion of 17-year-olds rose from 40 percent to 49 percent. The principal new element: Some of these minors, including some younger than 16, are sent to administrative detention: no actual charges, no rights, not even a minimal defense of their rights.

Quzmar has noticed that, in the first three months of 2003, the trend has reversed itself: Once again, allegations of rock-throwing are on the upswing, while allegations involving more serious offenses have diminished. The average age, however, continues to drop. Nearly every time he returns from a military trial, he tells of a "13-and-a-half-year-old child" brought up for an extension of his detention for throwing rocks. "The 1990 model" is what Attorney Quzmar calls these children. Some draw six- or seven-month sentences; others, shorter periods. It depends on where the case is being tried. In some places, the prosecution demands heavier punishment - at the Adorayim military court, for instance - and the judges rule accordingly. Elsewhere, at Beit El, for example, prosecutors dealing with the same offenses are satisfied with prison terms shorter by several months.

On one hot July night last year, Nader and his brother Mamduh were sleeping in the guest room because it's cooler than the rest of the house. They didn't wake up when the knocking came, even though the front door is close to the room where they were sleeping. Their father, a taxi driver, went to open the door: The soldiers, taking cover behind his neighbor, demanded his ID card, where his children are listed. They wanted to see Mohammad, one of the sons. The parents woke him, the soldiers handcuffed him, and he was taken to a waiting Jeep. The officer sitting there, Mohammad's father says, maybe from the Shin Bet, was holding some papers. The father related proudly how "the boy observed that in the papers, the ID number wasn't his, and he said so: "That's not me." That's right, admitted the man in charge, and directed that Nader and Mamduh be brought. The soldiers had evidently confused Mamduh and Mohammad, and if he hadn't noticed, he might have spent a few days in jail.

"Dad woke me up and said, `The army wants you,'" recounted Nader last week, in the very room where he'd been sleeping before his arrest. With him now were five other children from his village who had also been arrested in recent months, most recently, Ja'far. They compared notes. What was the worst part? For Nader, it was the trial. He was afraid to be sentenced to a year in jail. For Mamduh, it was the beatings by soldiers. For another boy, it was the moment of arrest.

His father woke them, Nader and his brother dressed and went outside where the soldiers waited. Their mother followed and saw the soldiers cuffing their hands and feet and blindfolding them. The soldiers had almost to lift them bodily into the Jeep.

After a short ride, they were taken out again and sat awhile outdoors. The blindfolds were removed. "I asked them to take off the handcuffs," recalls Nader, "and the soldier said `in another 15 minutes.'" They were put back in the Jeep. Their eyes were again covered, and they rode to "I don't know where." Evidently to the police substation at Givat Ze'ev. The blindfolds were removed and Nader saw two caravans. "It was about four in the morning," he guesses. "In front of me, in the caravan, there were two soldiers and an interrogator (a policeman). The interrogator began questioning me: `You throw rocks?' I said, `No, maybe once, when I was little.' He started shouting at me. He pushed me. He said I threw 300 rocks. He insisted I did, and I kept saying no. I told him again that I did when I was little, but not now. He wrote something on a paper and said I had to sign. I don't know what I signed."

They fingerprinted him, took him outside and then it was his brother's turn to be questioned. The plastic handcuffs were replaced with less painful metal ones. Then they were taken to a detention facility at the IDF base at Beit El. There, says Nader, "the soldiers beat us." Outside the cell, and in the cell itself. A few soldiers all at once, and sometimes only one. The reports of beatings are recurrent: especially in the detention cells at army bases. A slap here, a fist there, a kick, pushing, a blow to the head. The lawyers know it's pointless to make specific complaints: They wait so long to see the prisoner and have so little time with him; the matter of beatings falls by the wayside.

Reeking mattresses

Nader sat in detention for 15 days; at first alone, then with another four youths. They were taken at set times to the bathroom, three times a day; other than that, they were left to their own devices. He was permitted one shower in three days. The light in the narrow cell was on all night, and he couldn't fall asleep. The mattresses on the floor were filthy and stank.

In the afternoon, they were taken out for a walk, but not every day. There was never enough food. The conditions were so terrible in the cells and the fear of beatings so great that, when he was moved to the IDF's Ofer detention facility and put in a tent in a separate section, but close to the area where the adults were, he saw it as a significant improvement.

He doesn't say much about the trial; it was his mother who related that story: "We went into the courtroom (a caravan) and saw him crying. We left the room when the trial was over, and saw him crying." Nader was sentenced to four months in prison, allegedly because: "...in the year 2002 or thereabouts... on five different occasions... he threw rocks at Israeli vehicles traveling on the road, with the intent of harming them or their passengers."

Ja'far, who was arrested in a similar fashion in February of this year, was not handcuffed. He was even examined by a doctor on his arrival for interrogation. "Did you throw rocks?" asked Ja'far's interrogator at some point between one and three in the morning. "No," he replied. "They say you threw rocks 30 times," said the interrogator. Ja'far says one of the soldiers there beat him, too. Then he was transferred to Beit El. By that time, it was approaching midday. In his hand, he was clutching the birth certificate his mother had hastily given him at the last moment before the soldiers took him away so they'd know he was too young to have an ID card. At the Beit El base, he says, the soldiers required him to stand facing a wall with his hands up. There were some pebbles in his shoes that were bothering him. He stood that way for what seemed like 10 minutes. My arms hurt, he told a soldier. "The soldier told me: `Shut up.'" But finally he was put into a cell, given his first lunch (rice, a little salami and bread). He was there for four days with four other minors, on the reeking mattresses. They talked about school, he says now: about teachers they like or can't stand, about which subjects are interesting and which boring, about the old days when they were able to travel to Jerusalem. When the roads weren't blocked.

But Ja'far doesn't talk about what Attorney Quzmar says about the first time he saw Ja'far, on February 24, in a military courtroom where he was defending other minor detainees. Quzmar saw a child who looked about 11, in clothes that hung from his frame, "like a jacket on a matchstick." That same cold night, under interrogation, Ja'far had confessed to having thrown stones "in 2001 and 2002," as the charge sheet claimed. In other words, when he was 13 and 14 years old.

The military prosecutor was willing to make do with one month's imprisonment. Quzmar reported this to Ja'far, but Ja'far doubled over in his chair and began to cry. "Go back - to that cell, for a month? Oh, no." Quzmar called the prosecutor, Lieutenant Michael Kotlik, whom he knows from dozens of other cases involving minors sent to jail for several months for similar offenses.

"Maybe he threw stones, but he's also a kid - look at him," said Quzmar. The prosecutor looked at the tears coursing down the boy's face and agreed to a fine of NIS 1,000 in lieu of jail time. That was an extraordinary day, not just for Ja'far and his parents, who raised the money from the families of other boys who had been tried at Beit El. It was also an extraordinary day for attorney Quzmar.