Eight Palestinian teenagers were tried in the court of military judge Lt. Col. Menashe Vahnish on November 11, 2008. Referring to a soldier from the Kfir Brigade, Vahnish said, "at this stage, there is no reason to cast any doubt on the witness." According to his police testimony, on October 30, 2008 the soldier, T.M., and some of his comrades apprehended stone-throwing Palestinian 16-year-olds on a road that runs between the al-Aroub refugee camp south of Bethlehem and an agricultural school across the way.
Vahnish also saw no reason to doubt the accounts given by two other soldiers from the Kfir Brigade company, L.G. and G.D., whose statements to the Etzion police formed the basis of indictments submitted by the army prosecutor against the Palestinians. Under the indictment, the eight teenagers hurled rocks "from a distance of about 20 meters at Israeli cars traveling on Route 60, with the intention of harming the vehicles or their passengers."
Following their apprehension, the judge ordered that the teenagers, all of whom are students at the al-Aroub agricultural school, remain in custody until the end of their trial. Extending remands (i.e., keeping suspects in jail until the end of legal proceedings ) is almost always a default option favored by the Israeli military court in the West Bank, whose sole defendants are Palestinians. When detainees are suspected of minor offenses (such as stone throwing or demonstrating ), and especially when they are minors, the length of time they are held in custody often exceeds the maximum possible prison term. Therefore, defendants often feel pressured to reach a deal with the prosecution and plead guilty, even when they are not or when the evidence is weak. But this time, the pressure evidently did not work.
In their police accounts, the soldiers stated that they chased the stone throwers and caught those who did not manage to escape to the school grounds. The pupils, on the other hand, claimed they had been inside their classrooms and that some of them were even taking exams, when three regular army jeeps and one large ("Ze'ev" ) jeep suddenly burst onto the school compound. According to the Palestinian witnesses, the vehicles tore down a fence and then soldiers leapt out and whisked about 20 students out of their classrooms.
Vahnish gave little credence to arguments made by defense attorneys Mahmoud Hassan and Nasser Nubani. Their case depended largely on what they described as a clear photograph from October 30, taken by a pupil, showing a group of 20 students sitting on a low stone fence, without handcuffs or blindfolds, in the schoolyard. The eight defendants were selected out of this group of 20, claimed Hassan, from the Addameer Prisoners' Support and Human Rights Association.
Hassan submitted an appeal, and the eight teenage defendants spent another nine days behind bars before judge Lt. Col. Yoram Haniel, from the military appeals court, decided to release them on bail.
"Basically," Haniel stated, "the army prosecutor is basing his position on statements made by three soldiers who were responsible for the arrests under appeal. Unfortunately, the soldiers have not detailed what occurred, nor have they provided a detailed description of how they managed to bring all of the appellants to court."
The appeals judge ordered each youth to provide, in cash, NIS 7,500 as bail. For all eight of the defendants, whose parents were already hard-pressed to cover their journey to the military appeals court session in Ofer, this was an impossibly exorbitant sum. But the Ramallah-based NPO Addameer managed, in this particular case, to obtain a loan from the Palestinian Authority treasury and post their bail. Five days after Haniel handed down his decision, the teenagers were released; they had been in custody for 27 days.
After the suspects were released, Hassan told Haaretz, the army prosecutor began the typical routine of pressuring him to sign a deal. Hassan relates how the prosecutor's representatives told him, "We want to end this matter quickly. We will demand only a fine and a suspended sentence. It's a shame to waste the court's time, and your own time. What else could you want, [the eight defendants] are released and you're wasting time over nothing."
Hassan rejected the offer, saying his clients should not be branded with a criminal record for the rest of their lives for a crime they did not commit.
Between 15 and 18 sessions on the case were then held at the military court in Ofer. The soldiers were questioned about their statements to the police, and more photographs were submitted.
On the day of the arrests, the soldier G.D., for instance - who had served in the Kfir Brigade Haruv company for 15 months - told the police: "Today, over the course of patrol activity, we received a report that there was stone throwing in the region of al-Aroub. I arrived on the scene with a back-up squad... We immediately identified the group of stone throwers, located 30 meters away. Its members were hurling stones at Route 60. In our vehicle, we proceeded to chase the stone throwers at a moderate speed; when we were a few meters away from them, they began to flee in the direction of the school. At that point, we got out of the army vehicle and started to chase them on foot. We were able to detain some of the stone throwers, while others managed to escape into the school."
Along with the police questioner, this soldier entered the Etzion station yard where he pointed to three of the detainees, including Nasser Badran Jaber, "who was wearing a black jacket, blue jeans and had light brown hair." The police officer asked the soldier if he was certain that those he had identified had in fact thrown stones. "Doubly sure," G.D. responded. The policeman then asked whether the soldier had kept the suspects in his sight from the time they had thrown the stones until their apprehension. G.D. said that he had.
On January 28, 2010, G.D. left his base in the Jordan Valley to testify in the Ofer courtroom. Hassan asked him: "Is it true that, along with the rest of the force on the scene, you entered the schoolyard?" G.D. replied: "I never went in. I stayed with the detainees." Hassan: "So you stayed in the army vehicle?" G.D.: "Yes." Hassan: "So, who entered the yard?" G.D.: "I don't know anything about soldiers going in." Hassan: "You said that you caught somebody on the road, not in the schoolyard. Can you tell me who, among the defendants, this was?" G.D.: "No, I can't recall." Hassan: "I'm telling you that you have made false statements right now, because all of the defendants were detained in the school, not on the road. What do you have to say about this?" G.D.: "I am testifying about what I remember, and that's what happened. I recall that there were three [suspects] with me in the vehicle. I recall that they were involved in stone throwing; perhaps I did not see them throw stones, but they were in the group that fled." The exchange between Hassan and G.D. continued:
Q. When you reached the road, you saw people throwing stones. That was beyond the road, correct?
Q. Did any cars pass by at this time?
A. I imagine so, because this is the main road.
Q. But you yourself did not see a car pass by, or the suspects throwing any rocks at it?
A. I did not see a car hit by a stone. I don't entirely recall whether there was stone throwing at this time.
Q. You received a report that people were throwing stones, and you arrived a short time after the rocks were hurled. But you didn't see any stone throwing yourself?
A. I saw rocks being thrown in the direction of the road, and the moment we arrived [the throwers] fled.
Q. So if you saw stones being thrown, did you also see where they landed?
A. That's a very specific question. This occurred a long time ago.
'Tossed like garbage bags'
The teenagers continued to plead innocent. In July 2010, after the defense attorney announced his intention to bring schoolteachers in as witnesses, the military prosecution asked to rescind its indictment. The military judge had no choice but to declare, on July 12, that the indictment had been overturned.
Nasser Jaber, from Hebron, told Haaretz this week that he and the other suspects were held for a day before being brought to a cell at the Etzion police department. Over the course of this day, he said, they were insulted, slapped and kicked.
"We were handcuffed and blindfolded, and the soldiers threw us like garbage bags to the floor of the jeep," he related. "They kicked us during the car trip. Then they tossed us, face down, like garbage bags, from the jeep to the ground; some of us were injured."
During the remand hearing, "all of the defendants sobbed, except Nasser," Jaber's mother related. Some of them fell ill while in custody. Two dropped out of school as a result of the emotional strains and steep financial costs connected to the detention and trial. All refused to sign a plea bargain.
Along with the eight defendants, there was another detainee involved in the case - a young man about four years older than the other suspects. He denied all charges during the police interrogation and the court remand hearing.
In a prior case, when he was 14, he had been convicted on a stone-throwing charge and a shooting charge, which left him with a conditional arrest sentence of 30 months. That is why Haniel ordered him to remain in custody until the end of the court proceedings.
On May 4, 2009 he decided that his wisest course was to plead guilty of throwing stones on the date in question. The day he reversed his plea, he was released. The judge announced that they had worked out a plea bargain, according to which the man's sentence was equivalent to the number of days he had been held in custody; he was also fined NIS 500. He had been convicted on the basis of testimony from the same soldiers whose testimonies could not sustain the charge sheets of the eight teenagers. His friends spent one month in jail, while he lost six months there.
He lost but the court gained: The judge in his case, Lt. Col. Shmuel Kedar, seemed satisfied with the plea bargain. "The sides justified the arrangement by pointing to the defendant's past record, his admission of guilt and saving the court's time," he said.
The IDF spokesman released the following statement in reply: "It bears mention that there is no court determination that the soldiers lied in their accounts, and the agreement to overturn the indictment has no implication with regard to the reliability of the soldiers' testimony... Perjury in military trials is a serious offense, and appropriate legal measures are taken in response to it. Decisions concerning detention are reached in a professional, direct manner, according to appropriate standards and rules accepted in Israel's legal system. The prolongation of legal processes for one reason or another can justify the release of detainees, for this reason only and in appropriate cases."