JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli court-martial handed down suspended prison sentences on Sunday to two former soldiers who forced a Palestinian boy to search for suspected booby-traps during the Gaza Strip war, the military said.
The ruling meant the ex-conscripts, who were last month convicted of reckless endangerment and conduct unbecoming, are free but face a minimum 3-month jail term if they commit another crime. They were also stripped of their ranks as reservists.
While serving in Israel’s ground offensive against Hamas-led guerrillas on January 15, 2009, the two infantrymen helped storm an apartment building in the Gaza City district of Tel Al-Hawa.
Rounding up residents, they ordered nine-year-old Majed Rabah to check baggage for hidden explosives, said the Israeli verdict, which drew on witnesses accounts.
When Rabah failed to open one bag, the soldiers pulled him back and shot at it, endangering everyone present, the verdict said. The boy was later returned to his family unharmed, and the verdict made no mention of any booby-traps being found.
In Gaza, Rabah cried foul at Sunday’s sentence.
“It’s unfair. They should have been jailed for a year or two,” he told Reuters.
Rabah’s mother, Afaf, called for the Israelis to be brought up before an international war-crimes court. Efforts to have Israel’s military and government leaders prosecuted abroad have spiraled since the war, which killed some 1,400 Palestinians.
Such pressure had led to the Israeli military singling out the two soldiers, their lawyers and friends argued. But they welcomed the sentence — dubbed “light” even by Army Radio.
Israel went to war to counter cross-border rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza and insists its forces acted with restraint during fighting that killed 13 of its citizens.
According to a military statement, there have been 47 internal Israeli investigations into alleged misconduct by troops, including looting and unlawful killing of a civilian.
The soldiers found guilty in the Tel Al-Hawa case were discharged as first sergeants but the court-martial in southern Kastina demoted them to sergeants. Israel Radio quoted them as saying they would continue to serve as infantry reservists, annual duties that entail training, patrols and even combat.
“They were kept on as Israel Defense Force commanders, and we need people like these in the military,” the ex-soldiers’ lawyer, Ilan Katz, told reporters.
A military spokeswoman said their suspended sentence would be in force for two years, regardless of whether they are civilians or in uniform.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Myra MacDonald