HARES West Bank (Reuters) - On March 14 last year, an Israeli woman and her three daughters were hurt in a car wreck on the road between the Jewish settlement of Ariel and the Palestinian village of Hares in the occupied West Bank.
Five village boys were arrested and accused of throwing stones at cars and causing the crash.
The incident has become emblematic for both sides of the decades-old conflict between neighbors who despise each other - and shows how young lives on both those sides can be reduced to ruins.
A three-year old Israeli girl in the car was paralyzed and suffered brain damage. The jailed teens, all aged 16 at the time of the incident, face possible life sentences for attempted murder.
Israelis fed up with frequent such attacks have rallied around the case. The boys’ families say they threw no stones and that the settlers convinced the mother to blame the crash on them out of spite.
“Shame on you! You have your children, now give me back mine,” said 17-year-old suspect Tamer Souf’s mother Watfa, speaking at the family home.
“She changed her story under pressure from the settlers,” added his father Ayyad, who works in a plastic factory in the settlement next door. “It was just a normal accident, but they thought they could use it to incite against us.”
The extreme length of the boys’ trial process and severity of the charges has led Palestinians to accuse Israel of making an example of them and highlight for them the unfairness of detaining hundreds of minors a year to ensure settlers’ safety.
Rights groups say security forces’ treatment of Palestinian minor suspects in many cases constitutes torture and violates even the military laws to which Israel subjects them.
Defense for Children International-Palestine said in a report this month that over three-quarters of Palestinian children detained by the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank in 2013 “endured some form of physical violence during arrest, transfer or interrogation, a slight increase from 2012”.
It said that in 96 percent of the 40 cases it documented last year, “children were questioned alone and rarely informed of their rights, particularly their right against self-incrimination”.
Around 200 Palestinian children were in Israeli military detention at the end of each month in 2013, it said.
Adva Biton, the mother of little Adele who was stricken in the accident, declined to speak to Reuters.
“Our lives aren’t really lives at all,” she said in testimony to a military court in January, according to Israel’s army.
“It’s incredibly devastating to see a child without knowing what will become of her in the future. Her whole life has been destroyed because of the culture of rock throwing.”
Well over half a million Jewish settlers live among 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas that Israel captured along with the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war and which Palestinians envisage as part of an independent state.
Settlers and Palestinians share most West Bank roads and often live virtually next door, but rarely work side by side and virulently disagree over the future of the occupied territories.
Many Israelis see it as the Jewish Biblical heartland while Palestinians say they are interlopers on their rightful home.
Rows of razor wire and a soaring concrete watchtower mark the tension around the olive tree-lined road between Ariel and Hares.
Biton’s car smashed into a truck stopped on the road that night, trapping the twisted wreck and its occupants beneath the undercarriage.
“I can just hear them screaming, and my youngest daughter who is sitting by my side with her head hanging, covered in blood. I scream and yell to the girls that (Adele) is covered in blood, and that they should scream ‘Shema Yisrael’ (a Jewish prayer said on a person’s deathbed),” Biton testified.
The truck driver said he stopped because he heard a thud and thought he had a flat tire but soon concluded the sound was from stones hitting the vehicle, Israeli news outlets reported.
News of the incident quickly spread in Israeli media, and settlers gathered to pray and protest at the crash site.
At three in the morning that night, Israeli soldiers pounded on the door of 16-year-old Mohammed Suleiman’s family home.
His mother Feryal says she refused to let them in, at which point they detonated a stun grenade and kicked the door down, entering the home with dogs and throwing Mohammed to the ground before arresting him.
“They took him to a hospital after that. At first, he was jailed in an underground cell for 24 days, not knowing if it was night or day. There have been 30 hearings since then,” she said.
“He’s just a boy. He’s in the ninth grade and hasn’t taken his college entrance exams. I don’t even understand what’s going on with the trial...this is oppression pure and simple.”
Suleiman’s lawyer told Reuters he expected the trial may last until the end of this year but insists the prosecution lacks evidence to substantiate the charges.
Israeli police did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the investigation and trial of the boys.
“They may appear inoffensive, but rocks threaten lives. Adele’s story is only one of many stories of civilians injured in rock-throwing attacks,” the Israeli army said of Biton case.
It says it recorded more than 700 rock-throwing incidents directed at Israeli civilian vehicles in the West Bank last year, leading to the injury of 116.
While the harm to Israelis and the jailing of Palestinian youths rile emotions on both sides, none of the 38 Palestinians and 6 Israelis killed last year died from stone-throwing.
For their part, settlers perpetrated 399 attacks resulting in Palestinian injury or property damage last year, according to the United Nations but there have been few convictions of those suspects. Police say they are mostly minors to whom courts show leniency.
They torch Palestinian cars and houses, beat residents and scrawl hateful graffiti on buildings and holy sites.
Israeli suspects in the West Bank are subject to civilian law, while their Palestinian neighbors face a 99 percent conviction rate in military courts.
The boys’ case has deepened mistrust and hardening hearts on both sides, as hopes for disentangling the two peoples and building two states through peace talks fades.
“It’s quite clear that they’re using this case as an example to other children to control the population and to control communities, that they could face charges like this if they step out of line in any way,” said Randa Wahbe of the prisoner’s rights organization Addameer.
David Ha‘ivri, living in a nearby settlement, said 17-year- old Tamer Souf’s father should lose his job at a Jewish-owned factory as a “convincing way to make parents keep better tabs on their kids and prevent them from throwing stones.”
“It’s disturbing, it’s scary. You’re concerned when your family or women are out driving on the road...the government and police have a responsibility to crack down on any sorts of attacks on civilians,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta and Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan