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Two Israelis convicted of killing West Bank teen in runup to Gaza war

Last-minute insanity plea for adult alleged ringleader delays third verdict, angering family of Palestinian victim. Suspects told investigators revenge was motive.

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    Yosef Haim Ben David (c.) is escorted during his trial at the Jerusalem District Court November 30, 2015. Two Jewish minors were found guilty on Monday of the 2014 murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem, but the Israeli court held off on formally convicting a third man accused of orchestrating the crime, pending a psychological review. Ben David, a West Bank settler who works as a Jerusalem optician and who confessed to leading the crime, was also found guilty. But the court deferred formal conviction over his lawyers' 11th-hour request for a psychological evaluation.
    Ammar Awad/Reuters
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A Jerusalem court convicted two Israeli youths Monday in the grisly killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy whose slaying played into a chain of events that led to last year's Gaza war.

The court at the same time delayed the verdict for the third and chief suspect in the case following a last-minute insanity plea, sparking claims that Israel is too lenient with Jewish assailants.

The court found the two Israeli minors guilty of killing Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was burned to death in the early July 2014 attack. Their names were not released under Israeli law. The sentencing of the two is expected in mid-January.

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The delaying of the verdict for the third suspect, alleged ringleader Yosef Haim Ben David, 31, infuriated many Palestinians, who say Israel is too lenient on Jewish offenders while dealing harshly with Palestinian assailants.

The developments could also further increase Israeli-Palestinian tensions amid a two-month wave of violence that has convulsed the region.

Mohammed Abu Khdeir's father, Hussein, denounced the proceedings.

"This is a lie," he told Israeli Army Radio. "I am afraid that the court will release them (the suspects) in the end."

Judge: Ringleader drove car

In his ruling, Judge Jacob Zaban determined that Mr. Ben David and the two minors snatched Abu Khdeir off an east Jerusalem sidewalk in July 2014 and burned him alive in a forest west of the city.

The judge found that Ben David drove the car while the two youths beat Abu Khdeir unconscious in the back seat. Once they reached the forest, one accomplice helped Ben David douse Abu Khdeir with gasoline. Then Ben David lit the match, according to Mr. Zaban.

The three suspects were arrested shortly after the July 2, 2014 abduction and confessed to the killing to investigators with Israel’s Shin Bet, the internal security agency said.

According to the agency, the three said Abu Khdeir's slaying was in revenge for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens – Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel – by Hamas operatives in the West Bank.

The deaths of the three Israelis triggered an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank. Hamas responded with rocket fire on Israel from the Gaza Strip, which it controls. The confrontation evolved into the 50-day war in which more than 2,200 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, were killed, according to UN figures. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, most of them soldiers.

'Unbecoming behavior'

Late last week, Ben David's attorney Asher Ohayon submitted the insanity plea. Zaban said the late timing was "against regular and appropriate protocol," but said the court would examine it and issue a verdict later in December.

Hamas condemned what it called an "exoneration" of Ben David, describing him as the Jewish settler who killed Abu Khdeir. "This is an evidence of the occupation's racism and its sponsorship of the settlers' crimes against the Palestinian people," Hamas said in a statement.

Haifa University legal expert Emanuel Gross said the late insanity plea was "unbecoming behavior," though the trial was still fair.

Israel has mandatory life sentence for adults convicted of murder, Professor Gross said. Minors found guilty of murder can be held for life but the punishment is usually lighter, he said.

During the trial, one of the convicted Israeli minors claimed he did not realize the three of them would kill Abu Khdeir, while the other said he took part in strangling the Palestinian youth in the car and pouring gasoline on his motionless body. Ben David did not testify.

The two minors were 16 years old at the time of the crime, according to attorney Avi Himi, who is representing one of the youths.

In a related case, a Jerusalem court earlier this month sentenced a police officer to six weeks of community service for beating Abu Khdeir's cousin – 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir, of Tampa, Florida – during a July 2014 protest over Mohammed's killing. The US State Department said it was "disappointed" with that sentence.

Uneven justice

Monday's convictions come amid a two-month wave of unrelenting bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians that has left 19 Israelis and at least 98 Palestinians dead, including 63 said by Israel to be attackers. On Sunday, Israeli police killed a 17-year-old Palestinian in East Jerusalem who Israel says was throwing a firebomb at Israeli forces.

Prosecutor Uri Corb said Monday that the Abu Khdeir murder case was a stain on Israeli society. "When we try to claim we are better than our enemies ... we will always have this incident as a mirror," Mr. Corb said.

Palestinians say the Israeli justice system is too lenient on Jewish attackers. In July, suspected Jewish arsonists set fire to a home in the West Bank village of Duma, killing a Palestinian toddler and his two parents.

Four Israeli extremists, who are not necessarily suspected in the case, were later jailed for six months without charges – a measure usually used on Palestinians.

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