JERUSALEM — The Israeli police have arrested a group of Israeli suspects in connection with the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian youth from East Jerusalem who was found beaten and burned in a Jerusalem forest last week, a spokesman for the police said Sunday.
After days of near silence about the case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned what he called a “horrific crime” and pledged that the perpetrators would “face the full weight of the law.”
The police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said there was a “strong possibility” that the motive for the killing was “nationalistic,” indicating that it was a revenge attack by right-wing Jewish extremists for the recent kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank.
Several East Jerusalem neighborhoods have erupted in outrage over the killing of the Palestinian teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, with youths clashing with Israeli security forces for several days. The unrest spread over the weekend to some Arab towns in northern Israel, and tensions remained high along the border with Gaza in the south. Israel braced for more violence with the announcement of the arrests.
After paying a condolence call to the family of one of the Israeli teenagers in the community of Nof Ayalon, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Netanyahu stood before the television cameras outside the house and sent his condolences to the Abu Khdeir family. “We do not differentiate between terrorists, and we will respond to all of them,” he said.
But after weeks of taking the Palestinian leadership to task for having entered into a pact with Hamas, the Islamic group that Israel blames for the abduction and killing of the three Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu appeared unbowed.
“The murderers came from the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority; they returned to territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority,” he said of the kidnappers of the Israeli teenagers. “Therefore, the Palestinian Authority is obliged to do everything in its power to find them, just as we did, just as our security forces located the suspects in the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir within a matter of days.”
A person familiar with the case said six suspects had been arrested, several of them minors. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a judicial order restricting public comments. Israel’s minister of public security, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, described the suspects in a statement as “youths.”
Lawyers representing the suspects said they had not been allowed to meet with them.
Rosenfeld said the suspects were being questioned to determine whether they were also linked to an attempted kidnapping of a Palestinian child, Mousa Zaloum, 8, from the same area of East Jerusalem a day before Mohammed was abducted. Rosenfeld said the child’s mother had made an official complaint to the police that was being investigated separately.
Mousa was later photographed with red marks on his neck. Local residents told the news media that he had been slashed with a knife or choked, and they identified the would-be kidnappers as Israelis. Mousa’s mother struggled with the kidnappers, and her son escaped.
Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s body was discovered Wednesday, about an hour after he was forced into a car in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem, a few yards from his home. Security cameras captured images of two men whom residents identified as the kidnappers. The residents said a third man had been driving the car.
On Saturday, the Palestinian attorney general said an autopsy had found soot in Mohammed’s lungs, suggesting that he was beaten and burned while he was still alive.
The announcement of the arrests after days of uncertainty about the circumstances of the killing rocked Israel. Yaakov Peri, an Israeli minister and a former chief of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, told reporters that if the perpetrators proved to be Israeli Jews, the police should treat the killing as “a terror act.”
Mohammed’s relatives, who were convinced from the outset that the killers were Israelis, felt no immediate comfort or satisfaction.
“I feel pain,” Mohammed’s father, Hussein Abu Khdeir, said as he sat in a tent surrounded by mourners outside the family home in Shuafat. “There is no justice in Israel.”
The prime minister of the recently formed Palestinian unity government, Rami Hamdallah, and two senior Palestinian security officials visited the family to offer condolences. Hamdallah said the Palestinian leadership would demand an international commission of inquiry into the killing, which he described as an “ugly” and “shameful” crime.
The long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict entered this latest phase of brutality and tumult with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers — Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, who also held U.S. citizenship — on June 12 as they hitched a ride in the West Bank on the way home for the weekend from the yeshivas where they studied. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave in a field near Hebron 18 days later. Israeli officials said it appeared that they had been fatally shot soon after getting into the car.
The killings of the three Israelis and then Mohammed have raised the specter of the broader, Israel-Palestinian conflict’s descending into a spiral of personal vendettas and bloodletting. After the Israeli teenagers’ bodies were found, Israeli right-wing extremists took to the streets, and many, frustrated with what they saw as government inaction, called on social media sites for revenge.
Several Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem and some Arab towns in northern Israel erupted into violence with scenes reminiscent of the outbreak of the Palestinian uprisings in 1987 and 2000.
As youths clashed with security forces in Shuafat on Thursday, Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, a cousin of Mohammed’s and a high school sophomore visiting from Tampa, Florida, for summer vacation, was caught on an amateur video being savagely beaten by Israeli border police officers. The footage was spread worldwide Saturday, fanning local and international outrage.
The Israeli Justice Ministry opened an investigation into the accusations of police brutality. On Sunday, Tariq, who is suspected of throwing stones at police officers, appeared in court, his face and lips still swollen from the blows. He was released on bail but will be under house arrest in Shuafat.
Watching the video of himself being beaten and kicked for the first time Sunday afternoon, he said he was shocked. “I don’t believe what happened to me,” he said. He lost consciousness during the beating and was taken to a hospital. Tariq said he had been only watching the clashes and denied that he had been involved in stone-throwing.
After blaming Hamas, which dominates Gaza, for the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teenagers, Israel has carried out a broad military crackdown on the group’s infrastructure in the West Bank.
At the same time, tensions flared along Israel’s border with Gaza, with Palestinian militants increasing rocket fire into Israel and the Israeli military carrying out airstrikes against militant targets in the Palestinian coastal enclave, which is dominated by Hamas.
Israeli troops remained massed along the border with Gaza, threatening a large-scale military operation to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets against southern Israeli towns.
The tit-for-tat clashes continued on Sunday, even as efforts were underway to restore an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that took effect after eight days of fierce cross-border fighting in November 2012. Militants fired 15 rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel, according to the Israeli military, hours after Israel carried out 10 airstrikes against targets associated with militant groups in Gaza. No casualties were reported on either side.