JERUSALEM – An Israeli military court on Tuesday indicted a 15-year-old Palestinian boy on charges of recruiting teenagers to become suicide bombers — the first time such charges have been leveled at a Palestinian youth.
The court said Nasser Awartani (search) recruited a 16-year-old who blew himself up at a military checkpoint and another teen who was caught with a bomb strapped to his body. Awartani was the key contact between youths in the West Bank city of Nablus and two militant groups, the court said.
Palestinian militant groups, especially around Nablus, have been trying to attract youths to attack Israelis, in the belief they are more likely to evade security checks. Some Palestinian intellectuals and educators have criticized the practice of enlisting young bombers.
Israel's military court in the northern West Bank charged Awartani with 12 counts, including attempted murder and membership in a militant group. Although hundreds of Israelis have been killed in suicide attacks, none of the Israeli deaths were attributed to Awartani in the indictment.
The court said Awartani oversaw a recruitment network for the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search) and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (search), ferrying potential bombers to initial meetings with militants and helping them get ready for attacks.
He took the bombers to get haircuts before attacks, preparing for martyrdom and the afterlife, and helped them travel from place to place undetected, the indictment said.
Awartani was also accused of involvement in a highly publicized incident, in which Hussam Abdo (search), 16, was caught at a checkpoint outside Nablus wearing a suicide bomb vest. Soldiers forced Abdo to remove his shirt and cut off the bomb, an incident broadcast around the world.
The court also charged Awartani with recruiting Sabih Abu Saud (search) — at 16 the youngest suicide bomber in 3 1/2 years of violence — who wounded one Israeli soldier when he blew himself up in November.
Awartani's mother, Ihlas, said her son spent all his free time at home and could not be guilty. "They want to blame someone, so they have chosen my son," she said.
In violence early Tuesday, an Israeli attack helicopter fired a missile at a group of armed Palestinians in the Khan Younis refugee camp in Gaza, killing a 25-year-old militant and a 16-year-old civilian and wounding 22 other people, residents and doctors said. Witnesses said gunmen fired two missiles at Israeli tanks in the camp before the helicopter struck.
Israeli forces withdrew from the area shortly after the violence. But witnesses said military bulldozers returned Tuesday night, demolishing Palestinian-owned buildings across from a Jewish settlement. There were no reports of clashes between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The army had no immediate comment.
In the Gaza village of Beit Lahiya, four children were wounded by Israeli gunfire while throwing stones at cars traveling to a nearby Jewish settlement, Palestinian officials said.
The army also said that twice within an hour, two Palestinians approached the security fence around the settlement of Nissanit. Each time, the Palestinian refused to stop, the soldiers shot at his legs and he fled.
In the West Bank, a 9-year-old boy was killed and two 11-year-old boys were injured when a flare they were playing with exploded, Palestinian security and hospital officials said. The flare was apparently left by an Israeli patrol.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) had proposed unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza and the 21 settlements there, but his Likud Party (search) rejected the plan in a nonbinding referendum Sunday. Sharon has said he would modify the plan, which also included pulling out of four West Bank settlements, and submit it to the Cabinet and parliament for approval.
A senior government official said Tuesday that Sharon was considering a scaled-back withdrawal, evacuating only three settlements in Gaza and two in the West Bank.
Justice Minister Tommy Lapid (search), leader of the moderate Shinui Party (search), threatened to pull out of the government if Sharon does not present the Cabinet with a plan similar to the original.
"I understand that the prime minister will continue the policy that he started, maybe with some changes ... but there will be no change from his main line. If he does so, we will continue to support him," Lapid told Channel 10 television.
A poll published Tuesday in the Yediot Ahronot daily said that if Sharon had presented his plan to the general public instead of his party, it would have passed 62 percent to 32 percent. The paper did not give a margin of error.
Sharon proposed his "disengagement plan" as the best way to obtain security for Israel in the absence of peace moves, as well as defusing international pressure for greater concessions.
The United States consulted Tuesday in New York with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — the so-called Quartet of Mideast mediators — to find a way to restart peace efforts.