What price the life of an Arab child?
That was the question human rights activists, legal experts and one of Israel's main newspapers asked today after a plea bargain deal under which a Jewish settler convicted of beating a 10-year-old boy to death will not go to prison.
"The life of an Arab child equals six months of community service," read a headline in the Maariv daily, summing up the punishment meted out to Jewish settler Nahum Kurman, 36, on Sunday by a Jerusalem District Court judge.
"Arab blood is cheap," read a sign carried in a protest march by several dozen black-robed Arab lawyers outside the court building in Jerusalem.
In the daily dance of violence in which Israeli settlers and Palestinians have been entangled for years, the death of Hilmi Shousha in 1996 was, Kurman said, just a misstep.
Prosecutors told another story. They charged that Kurman, security chief of the West Bank settlement of Hadar Beitar, had hit and kicked the boy after driving into a Palestinian village looking for youngsters who had stoned an Israeli car.
"As a result of the kick, the deceased fell and while he was lying on his back, the accused put his foot on his neck and hit him in the head with a pistol butt," the manslaughter indictment said.
Kurman contended that he had run towards Hilmi and the boy had tripped and fallen unconscious.
"I tried to resuscitate him and called an ambulance … My greatest pain, of course, is that the boy died," he said in a newspaper interview days after Hilmi's death.
The boy died long before the upsurge of Israeli-Palestinian violence in which 310 Palestinians, 45 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since late September.
Acquittal and Reversal
Last August, the Jerusalem District Court acquitted Kurman, saying there was "no logical explanation why the accused would have committed such a barbarous act."
Two months ago, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling and sent the case back to the district court for sentencing — a plea bargain agreed by the prosecution and defense, and approved by the judge.
"I take no responsibility for the boy's death. I admit to nothing and I continue to regard myself as innocent," Kurman told reporters on Sunday.
Passing the community service sentence, the district court fined Kurman $17,000 and said it had taken into account the eight months he served in detention prior to trial.
"Would a Palestinian have received a sentence of community service if he had attacked a Jewish child and caused his death, even through negligence?" Israeli legal commentator Moshe Negbi asked in Maariv.
The sentence, Negbi wrote, "made a mockery of the law and the sanctity of human life which those who framed the law tried to protect." He noted that the maximum sentence for manslaughter is 20 years' imprisonment.
B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, said the plea bargain was just one more example of a different standard of punishment for Jews who kill Arabs and Arabs who kill Jews.
"We have been carrying out comparative studies for years and the picture is worrying," B'Tselem said in a statement.
"Many cases [of Israelis accused of killing Palestinians] are not even investigated by police. Those that are do not result in indictments … and those that do reach court culminate in the acquittal of the accused or a light sentence."
"In the few cases in which the court hands down a meaningful punishment, the president of Israel reduces the murderers' sentences," it said.
Nonetheless, B'Tselem said it was still astounded by the sentence in Kurman's case.
"The court's message … is that Palestinian life is cheap and Israeli civilians in the [occupied] territories can continue to treat Palestinians as if they were human punching bags."