Walid Abu Obeida, a 13-year-old Palestinian farm boy from the West Bank village of Ya'abad, had never spoken to an Israeli until he rounded a corner at dusk carrying his shopping bags and found two Israeli soldiers waiting with their rifles aimed at him. "They accused me of throwing stones at them," recounts Walid, a skinny kid with dark eyes. "Then one of them smacked me in the face, and my nose started bleeding."
According to Walid, the two soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed him, dragged him to a jeep and drove away. All that his family would know about their missing son was that his shopping bags with meat and rice for that evening's dinner were found in the dusty road near an olive grove. Over the course of several days in April last year, the boy says he was moved from an army camp to a prison, where he was crammed into a cell with five other children, cursed at and humiliated by the guards and beaten by his interrogator until he confessed to stone-throwing.
Walid says he saw his parents for only five seconds when he was brought before an Israeli military court and accused by the uniformed prosecutor not only of throwing stones but of "striking an Israeli officer." The military judge ignored the latter charge and chose to prosecute Walid only for allegedly heaving a stone at soldiers.
The boy got off lightly: he spent 28 days in prison and was fined 500 shekels (approximately $120). Under Israeli military law, which prevails in the Palestinian territories, the crime of throwing a stone at an Israeli solider or even at the monolithic 20-ft.-high "security barrier" enclosing much of the West Bank can carry a maximum 20-year-prison sentence. Since 2000, according to the Palestinian Ministry for Prisoner Affairs, more than 6,500 children have been arrested, mostly for hurling rocks.
Walid's story is hardly unusual, judging from a report on the Israeli military-justice system in the West Bank compiled by the Palestine office of the Geneva-based Defense for Children International, which works closely with the U.N. and European states. Human-rights groups in Israel and elsewhere have also condemned the punishment meted out to Palestinian children by Israeli military justice. Most onerous, says Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human-rights group B'Tselem, is that inside the territories, the Israeli military deems any Palestinian who is 16 years and older as an adult, while inside Israel, the U.S. and most other countries, adulthood is reached at age 18.
The report states that "the ill-treatment and torture" of Palestinian child prisoners "appears to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized, suggesting complicity at all levels of the political and military chain of command." The group's director, Rifaat Kassis, says the number of child arrests rose sharply in the past six months, possibly because of a crackdown on Palestinian protests in the West Bank in the aftermath of Israel's military offensive in Gaza.