Should Israel jail Palestinian kid stabbers younger than 14?

After attacks by preteens and teenagers, Israel seeks to lower the minimum prison sentencing age to 12. Human rights groups aren’t rushing to object

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Palestinian 13-year-old Ahmed Manasra seen surrounded by guards at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on October 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Palestinian 13-year-old Ahmed Manasra seen surrounded by guards at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on October 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

How should Israel deal with the chilling new phenomenon of Palestinian “child terrorists”? According to the Israeli government, the answer lies in treating the accused stabbers less like children and more like terrorists.

With two stabbing attacks on Israelis perpetrated by young Palestinian teenagers and pre-teens in slightly under a month, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday passed an amendment to the penal code that would lower the incarceration age from 14 to 12, though young perps given jail time would only begin their prison sentences at 14. The amendment still required the backing of the Knesset before it is signed into law.

“In the recent terror wave, we have been witness to many cases where serious crimes, including murder, attempted murder, and manslaughter were carried out by minors under 14. This must end,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party wrote in a statement.

“Youths who engage in terror and seek the death of Jewish citizens, such as Ahmad Manasra, will not be shown mercy by the law,” she said.

It began in mid-October, when a 13-year-old Israeli boy walked out of a Jerusalem candy store and got on his bike, only to be stabbed repeatedly and left in serious condition by two young Palestinian assailants — named as 15-year-old Hassan Manasra, shot dead by Israeli security forces, and his 13-year-old cousin, Ahmed, who was hit by a car while fleeing. (The Israeli teenager and another Israeli man in his 20s stabbed in the attack have since recovered.)

The case was given further media attention when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of “executing” the 13-year-old accused stabber, who was recovering in an Israeli hospital, and when a video leaked on Palestinian social media of his interrogation by the Israel Police in which the teenager was reduced to tears.

A month later, not far from that Pisgat Ze’ev candy store in northern Jerusalem, an Israeli security guard was attacked on the light rail, sustaining moderate injuries. The stabbers were named by Israeli authorities as cousins Moawiyah and Ali Alkam, aged 14 and 11, who had skipped school to carry out an attack. The younger of the two remains hospitalized after he was shot by the guard and is unlikely to face charges due to his age. The elder cousin reportedly confessed to the crime and said he was retaliating for the death of a relative in October, who was shot dead outside Jerusalem’s Old City after stabbing three policemen. “I decided to kill Jews to take revenge for Mohammed’s death,” he told his interrogators, according to Channel 10. His family has denied the two children’s roles in the attack.

Now, as 13-year-old Manasra goes on trial, and 14-year-old Alkam is charged with attempted murder, the justice minister has decided to wade into the delicate legal issue and work to lower the minimum age of incarceration — an issue that human rights groups, for the most part, appear to be steering clear of.

A growing global issue?

Israel is not alone in grappling with the issue of how to prosecute terror suspects aged 14 and below: The United Kingdom in October sentenced its youngest-ever terror suspect to life imprisonment for organizing, via the internet, an attack at Australia’s Anzac Day parade. The boy was 14 years old at the time of his arrest; the terror attack — which urged the beheadings of Australian war veterans — was successfully foiled. In May, Austria handed down a two-year jail sentence to a 14-year-old boy who contacted IS militants and had downloaded bomb-making plans onto his Playstation console. The 13-year-old brother of the Paris terror attacks mastermind, Abdelhamin Abaaoud, has joined the Islamic State in Syria on his brother’s urging, making him of the youngest jihadists in its ranks. And Australia in October admitted that it was monitoring terror suspects as young as 12.

“We know that ISIL has been grooming young Australians. Initially, they started with people in their 20s, they then moved on to … people in their late teens, and now we’re seeing them move on to people in their early teens,” Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Counterterrorism Michael Keenan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

“We’re shocked that a 12-year-old is on police radar for these types of matters,” added Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin. “This threat has evolved; it’s become younger.”

‘This threat has evolved; it’s become younger.’

A study conducted by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel NGO this month in anticipation of the Justice Ministry’s bill showed that in Europe, 38 of 45 countries do not permit jailing minors under 14. The United Kingdom had a minimum age of 10, but only for murder or other exceptional serious offenses. In Turkey and Hungary, the minimum age was 14 — but children 12 and older could be prosecuted under certain extenuating circumstances.

In the United States, said to be the world leader in child imprisonment, “fourteen states have no minimum age for trying children as adults. Children as young as eight have been prosecuted as adults. Some states set the minimum age at 10, 12, or 13,” according to the US-based Equal Justice Initiative NGO.

Tobie Smith, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Birmingham, Alabama, and co-director of the Southern Juvenile Defender Center, said despite the US’s lax sentencing standards for juveniles, “it is certainly extremely unusual for somebody under the age of 14 to be prosecuted as an adult.”

Paul Greaney, the prosecutor in the foiled IS plot by a 14-year-old teenager in northern England to target the Anzac Day parade in Melbourne, said his recent trial proved that the Islamic State “is actively seeking to recruit children to commit acts of terrorism and is using the Internet for that purpose. Other terrorist organizations are acting in the same way.”

“If there is evidence of terrorist groups exploiting children, then that may provide a legitimate basis for reducing the age of criminal responsibility,” he said, adding that whether that will deter future attacks by young terrorists is “a much more complex issue.”

“As I have made plain, a reduction in the age of criminal responsibility to 12 would not place Israel out of step with the approach taken in most developed countries. Indeed, it would be a less harsh approach than that taken in England.”

‘Hold the parents accountable’

According to Nitsana Darshan-Leitner of Shurat HaDin-The Israel Law Center, children who carry out terror attacks must be treated differently from other young criminals — and the parents must be held accountable for neglect.

Under current Israeli law, children under 14 have certain privileges, she said, including a right to a lawyer in the interrogation room, and the right to have a parent present. Their trial must be completed within a year, unless the attorney general approves an extension, she said. And above all, they cannot be given a prison sentence, but rather are treated in a closed juvenile institution until they are 18. However, she argued, the leniency is “not valid in a terror case.”

“A kid that gets up and stabs, or gets up and commits a crime, tries to murder someone because he is incited to do so by his community, by his surroundings, is not really doing it for his own good. He is not really doing it as an act of childhood. Or for self[ish] purposes. He is doing it for national reasons, for terror reasons, for ideological reasons. And therefore, he cannot be treated as a child,” she said.

Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, chairwoman of Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center (Courtesy: Shurat HaDin)
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, chairwoman of Shurat HaDin, the Israel Law Center (Courtesy: Shurat HaDin)

“And that applies to the parents as well… in this instance the ones that are responsible for the child are the parents themselves… and the parents should be responsible for the acts of the child. ”

Darshan-Leitner, who spoke to The Times of Israel prior to the ministers’ passing of the amendment on Sunday, said that if the legal system failed to prosecute these attackers, terror organizations would exploit children to carry out attacks.

“Kids will be free … kids who belong to Hamas or identify with a terror organization will go and kill others because they cannot be sentenced. And we’ve seen this organization using children as human shields, using children to trap Israeli soldiers, using them as soldiers. And we’ve seen kids being trapped with explosives and blowing themselves up because they were abused by this organization,” she said. “So you must put an end by imposing responsibility on the parents, who are the only people who care.”

A psychological perspective

But according to a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), the parents may not be the ones who put their children up for the attack, and the child-attacker — depending on the individual’s level of maturity — may or may not be capable of a full-fledged political motive.

“From a developmental psychology standpoint — and there are some people who argue your brain isn’t mature until you’re a young adult, and in an anatomical sense, that’s true — but pre-adolescents in particular, for the most part, lack a substantial capacity to understand the long-term consequences of their behavior,” said Dr. Gerald Koocher. Moreover, he said children “can be easily suggestible or manipulated by adults, especially adults who the child feels cares about them or who the child looks up to or idolizes and so forth.”

Koocher said he “could imagine there would be some very bright children” who could understand the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and plot an attack on their own based on that understanding, but “my suspicion is that at that age level though, the bigger reaction is not the Palestinian cause, but that ‘my cousin was killed by the policemen. I’m angry. There was no good reason to kill him. Not that I understand the history of what went on. But I’m just angry about that.'”

“There are some times when a political cause can provide a cognitive rationale for something that is an emotional response,” he added.

He said he would “certainly” be in favor of holding accountable “in some way someone who put the child up to this, who manipulated the child into doing this, to the extent that that can be determined,” while noting that the inciter could easily be a peer or sibling rather than a parent.

In terms of Shaked’s proposal, Koocher said the 14-year-old cutoff enshrined in the law is “somewhat arbitrary.”

“It’s a little bit like saying at what age should someone be allowed to vote, at what age should someone be allowed to drink, at what age should someone be allowed to drive an automobile. You can set an arbitrary age because it’s convenient, but there’s a wide range of individual differences. So you could have a very mature 12-year-old, or you could a very impulsive, unsophisticated 16-year-old. From the point of view of psychologists, what you want to do is evaluate each person on its merits.”

“So my short answer to the justice minister is when someone does something horrific, you ought to have a mechanism for deciding whether you treat them as a child or as an adult, but it ought to be a method that involves people that can do a proper assessment of this person’s abilities.”

Human rights group mostly silent

The move to lower the minimum incarceration age for convicted terrorists has not drawn any forceful criticism from Israeli or international human rights groups, with the exception of The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which said it was “not appropriate and not necessary.”

Human Rights Watch condemned the interrogation practices of Israel for minors, but did not rule out prosecution for children. “Of course it is troubling when children perpetrate stabbings. Children who commit violent crimes are subject to criminal prosecution, in accordance with domestic and international law. International law, and to a large extent, Israeli law, require authorities to take into account the age of children and to provide special protections throughout the criminal justice process – arrest, detention, prosecution, sentencing. The justice system for minors should be aimed at reintegrating children back into society,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Both B’tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and Adalah: The Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel, declined to comment, saying they were not involved in the issue. Defense for Children International Palestine, Amnesty International, and UNICEF did not reply for a request for comment by the time of publication.

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