Israel finds three guilty of 2014 murder of Palestinian teen

Stiff sentences for Muhammad Abu Khdeir's killers could mitigate longstanding concerns that Israel treats Jewish suspects more leniently than Palestinian ones. But the suspects, including two teens, still await formal convictions. 

Ammar Awad/ Reuters
Palestinians protest outside the Jerusalem District Court during the trial of two minors, and one 34 year-old man, accused of murdering Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khudair in 2014. All three were found guilty, but a last-minute psychological review for the older suspect delayed his formal conviction. Israeli minors may only be convicted after a social worker evaluation.

Three Israelis, including two minors, were found guilty on Monday of the murder of Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old who was attacked and burnt alive in July 2014. 

The attack was one of two this year to roil not only Palestinian, but Israeli, society, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes under increasing domestic and international pressure to treat Israelis suspected of crimes against Palestinians more harshly, as decades-old complaints over unfair treatment of Palestinians in the legal system fuel an ongoing wave of violence in the country.

The defendants, 31-year-old shop owner Yosef Haim Ben-David and two teens whose names have been withheld by the Jerusalem District Court, admitted to abducting and attacking Muhammad, setting him on fire, and leaving him in a Jerusalem forest on July 2, 2014, a murder intended as revenge for the high-profile killings by Palestinians of three Israeli yeshiva students who were buried the day before Muhammad's death. 

"I want that what is done to Arabs will also be done to Jews: life sentences, not pardoning," Muhammad's father told Israel's Army Radio before the court's announcement. 

The three have not been formally convicted: under Israeli law, a social worker must first approve convictions of minors, and a last-minute request for a psychiatric evaluation for Mr. Ben-David prevented the court from convicting him

Ben-David's case will be discussed again on December 20. Sentencing for the teenagers is expected in January. 

It was unclear if the verdicts would assuage fury over a perceived double standard in Israel's treatment of Jewish and Muslim suspects. In July, the Knesset increased the punishment for Palestinian rock-throwers to up to 20 years in jail, and the Defense Forces have returned to a policy of frequently demolishing homes of Palestinian suspects' families. Monday's acquittals of two other Israelis, who, as teens, confessed to shooting at a Palestinian bus and killing one rider, may have underscored the impression of different legal standards for Israelis and Palestinians, although the court ruled that police abuse had undermined the suspects' rights.

Muhammad's death was soon followed by the 2014 war in Gaza, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis, mostly soldiers, while reducing many neighborhoods in the Strip to rubble.

Last summer, both sides of the conflict were again thrown into frustration, sorrow, and debate by the firebombing of a Palestinian home in Duma, a suspected Israeli extremist attack that killed a mother, father, and infant. For months, Israel's failure to bring the perpetrators to justice contributed to rising Palestinian anger that some say has fueled the current spate of stabbing attacks. 

As The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month, out of 1,000 cases of Jewish extremist violence against Palestinians in the past decade, only 2 percent have reached convictions

"They don’t know how to solve these cases because they never really tried, and the perpetrators of the crimes feel they have impunity," Gilad Grossman, a spokesperson for human rights organization Yesh Din, told Joshua Mitnick.

But this reluctance, or inability, to prosecute cases may be changing. In August, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that so-called administrative detention, long an Israeli tactic to jail Palestinian suspects without trial or access to evidence, would be used on Israeli terror suspects, as well.  

"We are determined to vigorously fight manifestations of hate, fanaticism and terrorism from whatever side," Netanyahu said. Previously, the administration hesitated to label crimes committed by Jews as 'terrorism.' 

On November 9, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced that suspects in the Duma attack had been taken into custody, but indicated that a trial could not take place until investigators could stage "a reenactment of the attack." 

After Muhammad's murder, which was condemned by Palestinian and Israeli leaders, the Israeli Defense Ministry granted his family benefits accorded to families of Jewish victims of terror attacks, and included his name in a monument to terror victims. However, the plan was scratched after outcry from Jewish victims' families and Muhammad's own relatives. 

But the Israeli government may continue making efforts to crack down on Jewish extremists, not only for Israelis' and Palestinians' safety, but to prevent further outbreaks of violence and instability.

"The kids, who are clashing on a nightly basis with the Israeli police, aren't being whipped into a frenzy by charismatic people like [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas]. What their large scale participation indicates is a sense that they have no future," lawyer Daniel Seidemann told Al Jazeera in July. 

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