BETIN, West Bank – The fate of a 14-year-old Palestinian girl, tried before an Israeli military court for hurling rocks at passing cars in the West Bank and sentenced to two months in prison, has gripped Palestinians who say her treatment demonstrates Israel's excessive measures against stone-throwing youth.
Malak al-Khatib, arrested last month, is one of only a rare few female Palestinian minors who have ever faced arrest and sentencing by Israeli authorities.
"A 14-year-old girl won't pose any threat to soldiers' lives," said her father, Ali al-Khatib. "They are well equipped and well trained so what kind of threat could she have posed to them?"
The Israeli military said al-Khatib was charged with stone-throwing, attempted stone-throwing and possession of a knife and that under a plea bargain, she was sentenced to two months in prison and a $1,500 fine.
Having spent four weeks in detention, al-Khatib has another four left weeks left at a central Israeli prison for women.
Out of a total of more than 5,500 Palestinians held by Israel, about 150 are minors, the vast majority of them male, according to official figures from November, provided by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
Malak al-Khatib is among a handful of female minors ever held by Israel. Palestinian officials say she is the youngest girl ever detained and sentenced by Israel — a claim Israeli officials and rights groups said they were not able to confirm.
Palestinians and rights groups criticize Israel for its response to rock-throwing, either directed at its forces or civilians. Israel views rock-throwing as a dangerous tactic and at times a life-threatening attack, and claims it can be the first step toward militancy. Palestinians see it as a legitimate way to resist Israel's occupation.
Israel was hit by a wave of riots by Palestinians in east Jerusalem last year, following the killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy by Jewish extremists in revenge for the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens.
Up to 1,000 protesters were arrested, many of them for stone-throwing. Israeli police said many of those arrested were minors. Some of them, schoolbags strapped to their backs, hurled stones at security forces on their way to or from school.
Protests in the West Bank since then have been more subdued, but still occur frequently, with Palestinian protesters clashing with Israeli troops — incidents that often end in arrests.
Stones and small rocks have become an iconic weapon in the West Bank. In the past six years, more than half of all arrests of Palestinian youth have been over stone-throwing.
On Dec. 31, al-Khatib walked to a West Bank road used by both Israelis and Palestinians, and began throwing stones at passing cars, Palestinian officials told her parents.
Israeli security forces later arrested her and said they found a knife in her possession.
"These kids grow up with news about clashes, about oppression of Palestinian people in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and they go to express themselves," Ali al-Khatib said.
The girl's parents, who appeared with her in court, said her feet were shackled and she was handcuffed.
Since her arrest, the case has received constant media attention in the West Bank and spawned countless memes and caricatures, some showing al-Khatib, full-cheeked and pouty-lipped, behind bars and holding a teddy bear. One drawing shows a cherubic al-Khatib — whose first name means angel in Arabic — tied to shackles held by an Israeli soldier.
At her home, al-Khatib's bedroom shows the interests of a 14-year-old girl steeped in the realities of day-to-day life in the West Bank.
Bracelets and necklaces bearing the colors of the Palestinian flag and a poster of a Palestinian man from her village killed in clashes with Israeli forces lie near a picture of Real Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sarit Michaeli from B'Tselem said that under Israel's military justice system, al-Khatib will not be afforded the same rights and protections as Israeli minors under Israel's legal system.
"An Israeli child will not be held in detention for three weeks, even a boy, let alone a girl, because of these protections provided to children by the Israeli youth law," she said.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians claim for their hoped-for state. Palestinians living in the West Bank are subject to Israel's military justice system, whereas Jewish settlers and Israelis fall under a separate legal system.
Issa Karake, head of the Palestinian government's Prisoner Affairs Department, said al-Khatib's case is just another in a policy meant to break the spirits of young people resisting the Israeli occupation.
"The Israelis show no tolerance with the Palestinian children," Karake said. "The Israelis are crushing a whole generation."
Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.