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Israeli soldiers who made Palestinian boy search 'bomb' bags are freed

By Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem

Two Israeli soldiers convicted for ordering a nine-year-old Palestinian boy in Gaza to search bags that might have contained explosives avoided jail yesterday when they were demoted and given suspended prison sentences.

The former conscripts were reduced from first sergeants to sergeants after a military court found they had sought to force the boy to open two bags after separating him from his mother during Israel's 2008-09 military offensive in Gaza. The two men, both of the Givati Brigade, were also given three-month suspended sentences.

The sentence was criticised both by the boy's mother, Afaf Rabah, and the human rights agency Defence for Children International (DCI). DCI has highlighted that the use of human shields is in violation of the Army's own regulations since a High Court order outlawed the practice in 2005.

The case has had a relatively high profile in Israel because it led to the first conviction of its kind arising out of the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead and because it triggered protests by some Israelis. The only other conviction so far arising out of 47 military police investigations into the operation was of a soldier sentenced to seven months for stealing and using a Palestinian's credit card.

Mrs Rabah, who had earlier expressed satisfaction that the two soldiers had been convicted, complained yesterday that the sentence was too lenient, adding: "This will encourage Israeli soldiers to do worse things. That is what I call unjust."

Her son Majed, who was questioned by military police investigators, told The Independent after the soldiers' conviction last month that they had taken him to a small side room after troops entered the basement of an apartment block in the Tel al-Hawa district of Gaza City where residents had been sheltering.

He said they had ordered him to open two bags in the room, and that he had urinated in his clothes out of fear. The boy added that he had opened one bag but when he had been unable to open the second one, he was slapped by a soldier who then shot at the second bag. He was returned to his mother without physical injury. The bags turned out to be harmless.

The military court ruling said that "operational duty does not grant immunity" but that the court could not "ignore the difficult conditions in which fighters sent by the State of Israel had to operate".

Ilan Katz, the soldiers' attorney, said the sentence showed that a settlement could have been reached without criminal charges and without "having to put the soldiers through this ordeal". But he added: "They remain Israel Defence Forces commanders [as reservists] and we need people like that in the IDF."

DCI said the "leniency of the sentence and the fact that we have documented 15 cases of human shields since the High Court ruling, three of them children, shows the Army is not taking its obligations seriously".

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