JERUSALEM — Confronting the possibility of spiraling retaliatory violence between Jews and Palestinians, the Israeli authorities arrested six Israelis on Sunday in the killing of a Palestinian teenager, found beaten and burned in a Jerusalem forest last week.
After days of near silence about the case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned what he called a horrific crime and pledged anyone found guilty would “face the full weight of the law.” Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defense minister, said in a statement that he was “ashamed and shocked by the cruel murder,” describing those behind it as “Jewish terrorists.”
An Israeli police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said there was a “strong possibility” that the motive for the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, was “nationalistic,” indicating that it was a revenge attack by right-wing Jewish extremists for the recent kidnapping and killing of three Israeli youths in the West Bank.
Khdeir’s body was discovered Wednesday, about an hour after he was forced into a car in East Jerusalem, a few yards from his home.
A judicial gag order prevented officials from disclosing details about the suspects, but a person familiar with the case said several were minors.
The arrests and tough language came after weeks of calls for harsher Israeli military action in the Palestinian territories after the abduction of Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16. After their bodies were found last week, Netanyahu called their killers “beasts.”
An Israeli military crackdown in the West Bank after the three disappeared shook the Palestinian Authority and its reconciliation pact with Hamas in Gaza, weakening the more moderate West Bank leadership in the eyes of its public as it seeks international support for statehood.
Khdeir’s killing led to a wave of outrage, with Palestinian youths clashing with Israeli security forces in parts of East Jerusalem and Galilee in scenes reminiscent of the Palestinian uprisings in 1987 and 2000.
The killings on each side — and the subsequent arrest of the Palestinian’s American cousin, whose beating by the Israeli police was caught on video — have raised the specter of the broader conflict descending into a cycle of personal vendettas and bloodletting.
“It gives legitimacy to our enemies to do what they want to us,” said Shaul Marziano, 65, a retired Israeli factory worker. “They should be treated just like Arab terrorists,” he said of the Israelis suspected of killing Khdeir.
Now, Israelis are left to face the prospect that the entrenched conflict with the Palestinians is intensifying radicalization in both populations.
Some Israelis compared the moment on Sunday to that of watershed events such as the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister, in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli fanatic or the massacre by Baruch Goldstein, a US-born Israeli doctor, of 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer in 1994 in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.
“This is a wake-up call,” said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, accusing the government and the security services of not having dealt seriously enough with the growing phenomenon of a nationalist fringe that has desecrated mosques and destroyed Palestinian property. With the killing of Khdeir, Avineri said, “a line has been crossed.”
“This is absolute evil,” he added.
In addition to the rioting, tensions spiked along the border with Gaza in the south, with Palestinian militants firing at least 25 rockets in Israel on Sunday and Israel carrying out airstrikes.
Hamas, the Islamic group that dominates Gaza, said Monday seven of its militants had been killed in airstrikes, probably the heaviest death toll suffered by the group since a cease-fire came into effect in late 2012. In addition, two militants thought to belong to a more radical Islamic group were killed in an airstrike. Israel said they had been involved in firing rockets.
For Netanyahu, Sunday’s arrests were clearly a pivotal moment. He has been under intense pressure from right-wingers to take tougher action against the Palestinians since the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers were found.
After paying a condolence call to the family of one of the youths, Netanyahu stood before cameras and sent his condolences to the Khdeir family.
During the clashes in Shuafat, Khdeir’s cousin Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, a high school sophomore visiting from Tampa, Fla., was shown on an amateur video being severely beaten by Israeli border police officers.