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A court yesterday refused to convict an Arab youth charged with assaulting a police car near Nazareth during January's offensive in the Gaza Strip, accusing the state of "discrimination" against teenage Arab transgressors.

This kind of discrimination can no longer be tolerated, said Nazareth Magistrate's Court Judge Yuval Shadmi in his ruling, charging that "Israel operates on two fundamentally different levels of enforcement for ideological offenses committed by Arab and Jewish minors."

Shadmi instructed the teen to promise to refrain from violence against the police for the next two years and sign a NIS 5,000 bond to guarantee this pledge. He also sentenced the youth to 200 hours of community service, but without convicting him. Finally, he barred the youth from getting a driver's license for two years.

The teen was arrested a week after the start of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, when a police vehicle driving from Moshav Tzippori to Nazareth was forced off the road after the youth and several of his friends hurled rocks at it. He was charged with intentionally endangering civilians, and the prosecutor pressed for a prison sentence, saying "the case must be used as an example to deter further behavior of this nature."

Defense attorney Hussam Muad argued that the state systematically discriminates against Arab teens in comparison to Jewish teens, especially with regard to "ideological" attacks on police and soldiers.

Shadmi accepted this argument and said that sentencing the defendant to prison would violate the principles of justice.

At first, he wrote, he was tempted to accept the prosecution's argument and judge the case on its own merits, ignoring the general picture that Muad described. "But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that doing so would be wrong," he continued.

Israel, he said, deals very differently with Jewish and Arab minors who attack soldiers and police officers. The state indicted very few of the Jewish teens who attacked security forces during the disengagement from Gaza or during the demolition of houses in the Amona settlement outpost, and the same holds for ultra-Orthodox teens who attacked security forces during Sabbath demonstrations, he wrote: Legal proceeding against the lawbreakers were usually frozen or canceled before the indictment stage.

But when Arab teens are accused of attacking soldiers or police officers, the state does not usually delay proceedings, freeze indictments or issue pardons, the judge wrote.

Moreover, Shadmi said, he had not seen a single verdict sentencing a Jewish minor to prison, although dozens of Jewish teenagers had committed the same offense as this Arab teen had. Yet most Arab minors charged with this offense are convicted and sentenced to prison.

These things "are common knowledge, and nobody denies them," the judge wrote. "This sectorial discrimination can no longer be tolerated."

Shadmi said he has no complaint against the state and the law enforcement agencies for their treatment of Jewish minors who committed ideological transgressions. But the state cannot at the same time seek much harsher penalties for other minors who come from a different community, he stressed.

"If the state believes that 'ideological' offenses by youngsters justify lenient enforcement, it should apply this policy to all youngsters, regardless of their nationality or religion," he wrote.

Muad praised the verdict, saying, "This is the first time a court has recognized the discrimination between these communities. I urge the prosecution and police in the north to change their conduct. It is insufferable that in demonstrations of support for the Palestinians, police act as though Arab citizens are enemies of the state. They must treat them as they treat settlers and ultra-Orthodox protesters."