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A 35-year prison term at 17: Palestinian children and Israeli justice

Palestinian families are accusing Israeli courts of deliberately delaying hearings so their children will receive heavier sentences
Each year, some 700 Palestinian children are tried in Israeli military courts that boast a 99.7 percent conviction rate, according to rights groups (AFP)

RAMALLAH, Occupied West Bank - It has been almost three years since Omar Rimawi was arrested for stabbing and killing an Israeli settler in an occupied West Bank supermarket. He was 14 years old.

The teenager has been behind bars ever since. His family anxiously wait for the final decision on their son’s sentence, which is expected to be announced by an Israeli military judge on 14 January.

“It has been an agonising three years,” Omar’s father, 51-year-old Sameer Rimawi, told Middle East Eye. “Every time the court convenes we think this will be the day, but it still hasn’t come.”

“When he entered prison he was just a small child, now he is 17, almost 18 years old,” his father said.

In the three years that Omar has been in prison, Israel’s military courts have ignored pressure from family and lawyers and refused to hand down a sentence to the boy from the West Bank village of Beituniya, in the central occupied West Bank. 

When he entered prison he was just a small child, now he is 17, almost 18 years old

- Sameer Rimawi on his son's case

The Rimawi family is convinced that the court has been delaying Omar’s sentence for one simple reason: as he grows older, the court can justify handing him a longer prison sentence, a tactic which human rights advocates say is common practice for the Israeli justice system.

“Every year that passes by, the risk of a higher sentence grows,” Sameer Rimawi said of his son’s case.

The family had held out hope that Omar would be shown some leniency given his age, but those hopes were shattered last month when Omar’s friend Ayham Sabbah was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Ayham, who is also now 17, was with Omar the day of the stabbing, and the two are accused of carrying out the attack together.

“Ayham isn’t even 18 yet and they sentenced him to 35 years in prison,” Rimawi said, adding that the Israeli prosecution was seeking a life sentence and 5m shekel ($1.34m) fine for Omar.

“We pray to God that Omar will not suffer the same fate, but we know Israel does not care about the rights of children.”

Bassem Sabbah holds photos of his son Ayham (MEE/ Akram al-Waara)

In the modest living room of his three-bedroom apartment in Beituniya, Bassem Sabbah sits calmly with his legs crossed and his hands clenched together.

When asked about his son Ayham, the Palestinian teacher stiffens, and his hands begin to fidget.

On 17 December, he received the worst news of his life: Ayham, who is the eldest of his two teenage sons, had been sentenced to 35 years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 1.25m shekels ($330,000).

“We were shocked,” Bassem told MEE. “Ayham was just a child when he was arrested - and he still is, he’s not even a legal adult.” 

The family of the victim, 21-year old Israeli soldier Tuvia Yanai Weissman, who was off-duty at the time, said they were disappointed the Palestinian teenager had not been handed a life sentence. Another man was wounded in the attack. 

Two boys in Israel

Ayham and Omar were arrested on 18 February 2016 by Israeli forces at the Rami Levy supermarket in the Shaar Binyamin industrial complex.

At the time of their arrest, the two were shot and severely wounded by passersby. Ayham's family claims that he was medically neglected after his arrest and that his rights as a child were violated repeatedly.

“He was interrogated while in critical condition at the hospital, without the presence of myself, his mother, or even his lawyer,” Bassem said, adding that Ayham was coerced into signing documents in Hebrew, a language he did not understand.

Since then, the teenager has been held in Israel’s Ofer prison for the killing of Weissman. Ayham has appeared more than 30 times in Israeli military court.

“The court had more than 30 chances to sentence him, but they just kept stalling, saying they were waiting on new evidence, or for the witnesses to come in and testify against Ayham,” Bassem said.

But, Bassem said, the new evidence and witness testimony never came.

“Typically, a family of the accused would not want incriminating evidence to be admitted in court,” Bassem said. “But we begged the judge to admit the security footage from the day of the attack into court.”

“We actually wanted the court to bring the evidence so they could finish this case, and sentence Ayham sooner than later,” he said.

The boys were arrested at the Rami Levi supermarket in the occupied West Bank's Shaar Binyamin Industrial Zone (Reuters)

The family believed that despite the prosecution's efforts to seek a life sentence, the judge would offer leniency given that Ayham was a child, and had not even hit puberty at the time of the attack.

“Under international and human rights law, there are certain considerations that should be made when imprisoning and sentencing a child,” his father said. “But the Israeli court made no such considerations.”

Ayham was just a child, he did not understand what he was doing. But the court did not care

- Bassem Sabbah

“Thirty-five years is not just a high sentence, it is outrageous,” Bassem continued. “Ayham was just a child, he did not understand what he was doing."

When asked why Ayham, described by his parents as a studious and fun-loving boy, would commit such an act, Bassem gestured to the window outside.

“Look around at the occupation," he said. "Why would a child leave his books and his football to go stab someone? Because of what the Israelis have done on our land, and how they have attacked and arrested and killed us for years under the occupation, day after day. 

“That is what makes Palestinian children think: what future will I have under this occupation? And it makes them go commit an attack.”

In the eyes of the court

Every year, some 700 Palestinians under the age of 18 from the West Bank are prosecuted through Israeli military courts, which boast a conviction rate of 99.7 percent, according to rights groups Addameer and Defense for Children International - Palestine (DCIP).

Israeli military law allows for children from the occupied West Bank and Gaza as young as 12 years old to be sentenced to prison time.

Up until a few years ago, Israeli policy officially allowed Palestinian children age 16 and older to be tried and sentenced by Israeli military courts as adults.

Despite a military order in 2011 that raised the age of legal adulthood for Palestinians in the military court system from 16 to 18, analysts say the practice of trying children aged 16 and up as adults has remained largely intact.

It’s extremely important for the Israeli state that these courts maintain at least a facade of international legitimacy

- Dawoud Yousef, human rights analyst

“There are sentencing guidelines that limit the court’s ability to sentence a child to a long prison term if they’re under 15,” Dawoud Yousef, a human rights analyst based in the West Bank told MEE.

“So what the courts tend to do is wait until you’re 16 so they can sentence you as an adult,” he continued. “In theory, kids under the age of 18 shouldn’t be getting these 35-year sentences, but there are no regulations or requirements that prevent the courts from doing so.”

According to Yousef, the reason Israeli military courts delay the sentencing of Palestinian children is twofold.

“Not only are the military courts seeking the maximum sentences for Palestinians across the board, but it’s also a matter of their image in front of the international community,” Yousef said.

Rights groups have long accused Israel’s military courts of functioning as “kangaroo courts” that, instead of acting as a system of justice and accountability, are used as a tool of domination and an extension of Israeli sovereignty into the occupied Palestinian territory.

“It’s extremely important for the Israeli state that these courts maintain at least a facade of international legitimacy,” Yousef continued.

“So in many cases that means waiting until these young children get older, and also appear physically older, which helps the courts justify giving them a longer sentence.”

Sharp objects

Just two weeks before Ayham Sabbah was sentenced, Israel released Palestinian prisoners, Shadi Farrah and Ahmad al-Zaatari, both 15 years old, after three years in prison.

The two boys, who hold Jerusalem ID cards, were arrested in 2015 when they were 12 years old on charges of attempted murder, making them the youngest Palestinian prisoners at the time.

Israeli forces claimed that the boys were in possession of sharp objects and were planning to carry out an attack in the area at the time of their arrest.

Despite their vehement denial that the boys were planning any sort of attack, the Farrah and Zaatari families accepted a plea deal in November 2016 that saw the boys sentenced to three years, including time served, in an Israeli juvenile detention centre.

“We were pressured into accepting the plea deal, even though the boys did nothing wrong,” Shadi’s mother, Fariha Farrah, told MEE.

“The prosecution threatened us, saying that if we did not accept the deal, they would keep postponing Shadi’s sentencing until after his 14th birthday, in which case he would receive an even longer term,” the 40-year-old woman said.

Shadi Farrah and his mother Fariha in their home in Kafr Aqab (MEE/Akram al-Waara)

Unlike Palestinian children from the West Bank, Palestinian minors with East Jerusalem residency or Israeli citizenship are tried in Israeli criminal courts, not military courts.

Under Israeli common law, minors under 14 can only be sentenced to time in a juvenile facility. Once they pass the age of 14, they can serve time in a security detention centre alongside adult Palestinian prisoners.

In what Israel terms “security” cases - usually referring to cases where Palestinians are accused of attacking Israelis - convicted Palestinian children from Jerusalem do not receive reduced sentences. For any conviction on a charge that carries a maximum sentence exceeding six months, children 14 and older receive sentences equal to those of adults.

“The prosecution did not provide any witnesses who could testify against Shadi, but the court kept delaying and delaying his sentencing without any reason,” Farrah continued. “We were in a race against time to make sure Shadi was sentenced before his 14th birthday.”

We were in a race against time to make sure Shadi was sentenced before his 14th birthday

- Fariha Farrah, mother of a recently imprisoned Palestinian teenager

“We saw what happened with Ahmed Manasra, how they kept delaying his sentencing, which scared us into accepting the deal,” she said.

A few months before Shadi’s sentencing in November 2016, an Israeli court sentenced 14-year-old Ahmad Manasra to 12 years in prison for attempted murder.

Manasra, whose trial made headlines, was just 13 years old when he and his cousin stabbed and critically wounded two Israelis near an Israeli settlement in occupied East Jerusalem.

Israel was widely criticised for delaying Manasra’s sentencing until after his 14th birthday, at which time he was old enough under Israeli law to be given a longer prison sentence.

That same year, Israeli courts sentenced several other Palestinian minors from Jerusalem to lengthy prison sentences for attempted murder after they were allegedly involved in stabbing attacks between 2015 and 2016.

Double standards

The Rimawi, Sabbah, and Farrah families each expressed one common grievance: if the roles were reversed, this would not be happening.

“We know that racism is one of the deciding factors in these situations,” Bassem Sabbah told MEE.

“If an Israeli settler child killed a Palestinian, do you think they would suffer the same fate as my son? Absolutely not,” he said.

“Israelis who attack Palestinians or kill them are prosecuted, if at all, in civilian courts,” Sameer Rimawi said. “But if a Palestinian child throws a stone, they are put on trial in a military court. What kind of justice system is this?”

Sabbah and the other parents highlighted the cases of Israeli minors, and adults, who murdered Palestinians or attacked Palestinians and got off with much less time than their children, or even no time at all.

We know that racism is one of the deciding factors in these situations

- Bassem Sabbah

“Look at the guys who kidnapped and burned Mohammed Abu Khdeir alive in 2014,” Sabbah said, pointing to the fact that one of the convicted Israeli teenagers was serving a 21-year-sentence compared to Ayham Sabbah’s 35 years.

“Look at Elor Azaria,” Fariha Farrah said, “he was caught on video executing Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif, and he spent eight months in jail.”

Farrah added that during her son Shadi’s trial, the family’s Israeli lawyer was also representing an Israeli settler minor who had attacked an Israeli soldier.

Ahmed Manasra, pictured here in 2016, received a 12-year sentence when he was 14 years old for attempted murder (AFP)

“The Israeli boy she was representing was released and given a small fine, and he attacked one of their soldiers,” she said. “My son was 12 years old and imprisoned for three years for allegedly ‘planning’ an attack, and he didn’t even lay a hand on anyone.”

Earlier this summer, Israel’s High Court released an Israeli settler who was involved in the 2015 firebombing of a Palestinian home, which killed a Palestinian baby and his parents from the Dawabsheh family.

The court released the settler after he spent two years in prison under the pretext that he was a minor at the time of the high-profile attack. He was ordered to house arrest.

“They burned a baby alive, and got off scot-free,” Farrah said.

“What they do for Israeli children, they should do for Palestinian children,” Sabbah continued.

“All over the world, children are not judged as adults, even if they make a mistake,” he said.

“There is something called childhood - and that should be respected. But under occupation, our kids are spending their childhoods in prison.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.