The Youngest Palestinian Under Arrest

A Palestinian boy, not yet 13 years old, transferred arms to Hamas. When the person who employed him failed to pay as promised, the child turned him in to soldiers at a roadblock. Now he is on trial in an Israeli military court.

Angry that his partners in the deal did not stick to their agreements and pay him what he had coming, R.A.'s response was to complain to the first people with authority and power he came across: Border Police soldiers at the "Container" roadblock, on the eastern road to Bethlehem from Jericho.

This was about three weeks ago, at 6 P.M. on September 29. R.A. is 12 years and 9 months old, a resident of Jericho, an 8th-grader, and the deal he took part in was an arms transfer to Hamas people. Listen, he said to the men in uniform - who were undoubtedly astonished to hear this confession - I kept my promises and so-and-so cheated me and didn't pay me. Informing on someone to the authorities may be sweet revenge, but of course it resulted in the immediate arrest of R.A., his interrogation by the police and his indictment. R.A. is now the youngest Palestinian child under arrest and involved in legal proceedings in an Israeli military court.

The indictment sounds very clear: R.A. is accused of having belonged to an outlawed organization - the Iz a Din al- Kassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas - during the year 2003 until the time of his arrest. The person who enlisted and trained him - according to the indictment - was Muhammad Zakarna. He "underwent unauthorized military training in Jericho or nearby on a number of occasions and practiced using and firing a pistol." The third charge in the indictment is "firing at a human being." During, or approximately during, the month of May 2003, R.A. fired a pistol at an Israeli vehicle that was passing by. He was with Zakarna. The bullets did not hit the vehicle. The fourth item charges him with dealing in war materiel: "The accused, during the stated period, on 15 different occasions, transferred weapons from Jericho to Bethlehem. On each occasion the accused transferred one pistol." He received the weapon from Zakarna and handed it to "a certain person" in Bethlehem. For transferring the pistols he was supposed to receive the sum of NIS 1,000.

According to the fifth item in the indictment, R.A., not yet 13 years old, agreed to Zakarna's suggestion that he carry out a "sacrificial terror attack" in Ma'aleh Adumim. R.A. was supposed to meet a resident of Jerusalem, who was also supposed to bring the weapon, at 9 P.M. at the entrance to Ma'aleh Adumim. At midnight they were to enter the Jewish settlement and "open fire on Jewish inhabitants they saw in the streets of the city." The authors of the indictment also seem to know that the accused and Zakarna planned that in this "sacrificial action" as many Jewish civilians as possible would be killed, including women and children.

But the indictment is based solely on R.A.'s statements to the police, and even in trials of Palestinians this is not considered sufficient. To his lawyer, Jawad Imawi, R.A. confirmed that he had indeed said what was recorded as his statement. He said that he was under pressure and threats during the interrogation; the investigators' training apparently does not include interrogating children.

The indictment notes that Zakarna occasionally paid R.A. NIS 100 for his activities in the organization, but R.A. told attorney Amawi that he had not received any money for his services. After meeting with the child on four occasions, the lawyer did not succeed in understanding when and whether the "sacrificial action" was supposed to have been carried out. Was this child able to understand what he was doing, Amawi wonders, when he transferred weapons - according to his testimony - and when he went to complain to the soldiers? How much of what he told the investigators is true, and how much is the boasting of a child who does not understand the kind of trouble he has got himself into?

Abysmal conditions

Immediately after he turned himself in, R.A. was taken to the Ma'aleh Adumim police station, where he was questioned by two investigators. According to him, in a statement he made 10 days later to attorney Ibrahim Mahajna, he was questioned throughout the night, and until the following afternoon. Then he was transferred to the Etzion detention facility. In the meantime, the Israeli Liaison and Coordination Office informed the Palestinian liaison office that deals with released prisoners. Imawi called Hamoked - Center for the Defense of the Individual, which was able to find out where R.A. was being held. His parents have not seen their son since his arrest. On their way to a meeting at the military court at Ofer camp, on October 7, the parents succeeded in getting from Jericho to Bitunia by a circuitous route. From there, trying to negotiate a stretch of a few hundred meters and an iron gate, they were unable to get to the court because of a strict internal closure in the West Bank.

The difficult conditions of his arrest at Etzion shocked R.A. According to detainees, the hygienic conditions are abysmal there, the food is meager and not fresh and there is no soup or hot beverages. Did it not occur to R.A. that he would be arrested when he went to turn himself in to the soldiers? "The soldiers (at the detention facility) treat me rudely," he declared in his statement to attorney Mahajna. "I have to be under their supervision the whole time. There's yelling and restrictions and orders all the time."

On October 5, according to that same statement, he tried to put an end to his life. He tied a sheet to the ceiling of the yard and wrapped the other end around his neck. "I climbed up on a table and pushed myself off." But two other detainees hurried over and extricated him from the sheet. The soldiers, he said, did not take an interest in what was going on.

An older detainee, one of those who rescued him, confirms this and adds that no doctor was summoned to examine the boy. According to another statement that R.A. gave to Imawi, he was put into solitary confinement in Etzion. "When I was in the cell I tried to commit suicide because I was alone and I couldn't find anyone to talk to and also I was afraid and pressured."

To what extent, until now, has R.A. been guided by the need to find someone to talk to? Where was the line between his personal need for someone to listen and support him, and the way children imitate and take to extremes what is going on around them: in this case, weapons and blood and death, military attacks from the air and on the ground, tanks, helicopters and military planes?

After the suicide attempt, the adult detainee says he took R.A. under his wing and even slept next to him in the courtyard. On October 12, R.A. was transferred to another detention facility in the Ofer compound, a facility that was supposed to be an improvement, since it is intended for minors. But Imawi, who visited him, found him scared and confused there, begging to be taken back to Etzion.

According to R.A., when he was checked at the entrance to the new detention facility he had to strip completely, and he claims that one of the soldiers who checked him caressed his bottom during the check. "I was frightened and crying, and the soldiers spoke Hebrew among themselves and laughed. I was terribly scared that something would happen to me in the jail and I prefer the cell in Etzion to Ofer and its soldiers," he said in the statement to Imawi.

On October 7, Judge Captain Eyal Baumgart granted the prosecutor's request to detain R.A., not yet 13, until the completion of the proceedings against him. That is, he agreed with the prosecution that the necessary evidentiary infrastructure exists for detention until the completion of proceedings - that is, the accused's confession. As reinforcement, the prosecution submitted R.A.'s statements to his interrogators that he hates Jews and wants to kill them and has no remorse about what he did. Imawi did not succeed in persuading the court that it was preferable to transfer R.A. to a closed Palestinian institution for the rehabilitation of young offenders.

The next session was set for October 14. The judge at that session, Major Ronen Atzmon, did not conceal his astonishment and sorrow: "The accused before me is not yet 13 years old ... The legal proceedings in his case reveal the absurdity of the reality of our life today, and to paraphrase the title of a famous book, they reveal the unbearable lightness of being, for Israelis and for Palestinian children.

"The accused made a detailed and orderly statement to the police ... The accused was arrested when he came of his own initiative to a security forces roadblock in order to complain that a person to whom he had transferred a weapon a few minutes earlier refused to give him the sum of money that had been agreed upon. During his testimony at the police station the accused did not express any remorse. On the contrary, he noted that `I have no heart, like the Jews have no heart,' and also said `I hate Jews, and at any opportunity I have I will kill Jews. I am a shaheed (martyr)."

Picture of hatred

The accused, continued Judge Atzmon, is being held in a military detention facility considered unfit for holding children of his age. According to the defense attorney, even the Prison Service is unable to provide an answer to the arrest of such a young person. In addition, the defense has made claims of harassment suffered by the accused during his time in jail.

"Thus, from everything taken together, there emerges a picture that in the heart of a young child influenced by the adults around him arouses a hatred that leads him to carry out actions that are among the gravest in the law books. The naive accused turned to the Israeli security forces with a complaint against someone who refused to give him the money he was promised in return for transferring weapons, and when he was questioned he expressed hatred, not remorse. The prison authorities apparently have no good solutions for the detention of the child, and despite such grave deeds, it appears that the accused can expect a relatively light punishment, because of his young age."

Atzmon did not accept the prosecution's position that the action report (which describes the circumstances of the arrest) is the additional evidence needed to reinforce the accused's statement to the police. However, notes the judge, "In fact the defense too did not deny that the evidentiary material includes evidence that gives credence to the indictment. He did not object to the prosecution's argument that at this stage of the proceedings no additional evidence is needed ... The defense argued, limply and half-heartedly, that the confession by the accused was given under pressure, but did not detail facts that could throw into question the detailed and orderly statement given by the detainee (especially as the detainee, who ostensibly was under pressure, was not at all afraid to say how much he hates Jews and is interested in harming them). The defense also did not dispute that the detainee is dangerous, and all that he wished to argue is that the detention facility is not appropriate to the young detainee."

Atzmon ordered an investigation of the complaint that harassment ostensibly took place, and that the court sessions be held at the shortest possible intervals "in order to ensure that the accused be held in an appropriate detention facility and that the proceedings against him go forward at a satisfactory pace. ... "

Military Judge Atzmon stuck to language that reveals his regret for R.A., not yet 13: "In the whole absurd situation I have described, the court must render its decision in accordance with the law and the evidence. And the law regarding the stage of arrest until completion of the proceedings does not take into account the age of the accused and his light-mindedness."