JERUSALEM - Two Israeli soldiers received suspended sentences and demotions on Sunday for using a Palestinian child as a human shield by making him check for bombs during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, army radio said.
The radio's correspondent, who attended the sentencing in a military court, said the two were each given suspended terms of three months imprisonment and were demoted from the rank of staff sergeant to sergeant.
The military spokesman's office had no immediate comment on the sentencing of the two men, who were convicted on October 3 for forcing a nine-year-old boy to search bags believed to be booby-trapped during Israel's 22-day war on Gaza which erupted in December 2008.
Gerard Horton, a spokesman in the West Bank for Geneva-based rights group Defence for Children International (DCI), described the sentence as "unbelievable."
"Do the Israeli authorities think that a three-month suspended sentence is an appropriate punishment for two heavily-armed soldiers treating a nine-year-old boy as a human shield?"
He told AFP that the trial appeared designed to deflect attention from accusations in the Goldstone report, a UN-mandated study by South African judge Richard Goldstone which accused both Israel and the Palestinians of war crimes during the three-week war.
"It's purely for international consumption," Horton told AFP.
"It's to look like you're doing something busy after the Goldstone report, in order to get the UN off your back. It's not a genuine attempt to enforce the law or to send a message that this is not appropriate conduct for the army to engage in."
Goldstone recommended that the report's findings be transferred to the International Criminal Court if Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement fail to conduct "credible" investigations into the war.
Israel rejected the report as "biased."
Israel's Supreme Court banned the army from using human shields in October 2005.
Since then, DCI had documented 15 breaches of that ban in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Horton said.
"This is the only case out of those 15 where anyone has been prosecuted -- and they get a three-month suspended sentence," he added.
During the trial, the boy, identified as Majd R, said he feared for his life as one of the soldiers ordered him at gunpoint to open a suspect bag.
"I thought they would kill me. I became very scared and wet my pants," he said in an affidavit given to DCI.
The military court recognised that when the incident occurred in January 2009, the troops had been under "difficult and dangerous combat conditions" and had gone several nights without sleep.
Israel launched its 22-day offensive against the Gaza Strip in December 2008 in a bid to halt Palestinian rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory. The fighting killed some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.