Two Israeli youths were found guilty of kidnapping, torturing and burning to death a Palestinian teenager on Monday, but the court held off on convicting the alleged adult ringleader following a last-minute plea of insanity, sparking fury among the victim's relatives.
Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, was abducted from the street near his home at around 4am on July 2 last year while walking near a local mosque. His kidnappers, who drove the streets for several hours searching for a victim before settling on Khdeir, then took the teenager to Jerusalem Forest where they bludgeoned him unconscious and set him alight with flammable liquid. All three of the accused admitted to their involvement in the murder-abduction and reenacted their gruesome crime for investigators.
In interviews with police, Khdeir's killers said the attack was "revenge" for the kidnap and killing of three Israeli teens in West Bank by Hamas militants just days earlier. Both incidents were branded acts of terrorism by Israel and marked the start of a round of violence that culminated in a bloody seven-week war in Gaza last summer which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, 72 Israelis, and one Thai national.
During the trial the two unnamed minors convicted of killing Khdeir claimed that while they took part in the abduction-murder, it was 31-year-old Yosef Haim Ben-David from Adam settlement in the West Bank who masterminded the attack and encouraged them to carry it out. According to the youths the older man gave them pills and energy drinks before carrying out the attack and ordered them to "end" Khdeir during the brutal assault.
When the teenager lost consciousness while being strangled, Ben-David, who worked as an optician in Jerusalem, allegedly then took over battering the 16 year-old with a crowbar while shouting out the names of Israelis killed by Palestinians. After the murder the trio retired to play guitar at Ben-David's home before falling asleep.
But while a panel of three judges ruled on Monday that all three defendants had carried out the kidnapping and murder together, Ben-David, the only adult defendant and alleged ringleader, was spared formal conviction pending further assessment of his mental state.
Speaking outside the courtroom Ben-David's lawyer, Asher Ohayon, told reporters at court that his client was "completely detached from reality" and had been "in a process of denial for many months because he cannot face the horrible act."
The decision has further angered the family of the Palestinian teenager who had already repeatedly complained about lengthy delays during the trial, including a previous rejected attempt by Ben-David's legal team to claim that his client was not mentally fit to stand trial.
Commenting on the last-minute submission of a psychiatric evaluation on Thursday, Hussein Abu Khdeir, the murdered teenager's father, said it was an "unjust trick" and that the court judged "Arabs and Jews with different standards."
Referencing Israel's policy of routinely demolishing the family homes of Palestinians who carry out terror attacks, Hussein pointed to a double-standard in the state's response. "Why haven't they demolished the homes of these three murderers?" he asked. "If they were Arabs, their homes would have been demolished immediately."
Hussein said that his son's murder and the killers' trial had already taken a severe toll on the whole family. "We're going to a psychologist, we're thinking about Mohammed and about how he was burned, and it's hard for us," he told Army Radio following the court's announcement on Monday. "His brothers are afraid to leave the house at night, his younger brother sleeps with us in our room — he's 14 years old."
The ruling may further stoke tensions in the region. Over the last two months a spate of stabbing, vehicle and shooting attacks by Palestinians have killed 21 Israelis and wounded dozens more. On the other side some 98 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli security forces, including at least 63 alleged attackers and 35 killed during protests and clashes, according to figures provided by the police.
A second sentence hearing has been set for January to rule on Ben-David's mental condition.