Today was more difficult than most trips to the Jerusalem District Court for the grieving family of the late 16-year old Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was abducted and then burned to death in a nationalistic crime by Israeli right-wingers in July, just before the summer war in Gaza. Aside from an early winter rain, and slow progress in the murder trial, settlers spat on them as they exited the courthouse.
On the sidewalk a scuffle followed the Abu Khdeirs on their way home. Approaching their car, settlers recognized them; for Abu Khdeir relatives’ faces have become synonymous with the on-going unrest in Jerusalem. The Israelis, a group of religious-nationalist youth, were also in court that day, but for an altogether different case .They allegedly accosted Palestinians. “They came after us,” said Amsam Abu Khdeir, 27, a cousin of the deceased. He stated that one of the Israeli-nationalists “spit on my cousin and then he said to the police, see the Arabs…”
To Palestinians “Mohammed” conjures more than the name of the prophet. He is a child killed by vigilantism and racism cultivated by the state of Israel, a symbol of the unchecked violence Palestinians experience from anti-Arab extremists that was manifested last summer by throngs of rightists youths explicitly “hunting” for Arabs. And his death carries over to the more recent killings of four Palestinians in Jerusalem who were gunned down for the attempted killing, actual killing or suspected killing of Israelis.
Abu Khdeir’s alleged murderers were in court today for a second pre-trial. All three defendants were supposed to enter pleas. In the session the self-proclaimed ringleader of the group, Yosef Haim Ben-David, 29, refused to cooperate. His lawyer told the judge he could not give a statement on guilt on behalf of his client, as was the case in the last pre-trial in October. Today, the delay was because Ben-David is no longer speaking.
The two accused minors pleaded guilty on the charge of abducting Abu Khdeir from outside of his Shuafat home in East Jerusalem, but pleaded not guilty on the charge of murder. They claim that in the spirit of the moment Ben-David alone poured lighter fluid down the kidnapped youth’s throat, doused him in the chemical and then set him alight.
Outside of the hearing room, camerapersons were kept at bay behind blue metal barricades, the kind that are used by police to block streets during riots. Just under a dozen journalists crammed into a corridor. The arrivals and departures were recorded: The family of the defendants entered first, then the Abu Khdeirs. The state prosecutor followed, warmly greeting Abu Khdeir’s father, Hussein Abu Khdeir. But the real draw of the day was Ben-David who again appeared unkempt in court. His black hair was uneven and multi-directional, tucked under a religious skullcap. His beard appeared spotty, yet strong. He sported a black tracksuit with red and gray trim, and his staple of courtroom attire: neon yellow crocs worn over thick gray socks. White tzitzit (religious trims) hung from his waistline.
The hearing itself lasted about thirty minutes. With two pleas delivered, and one withheld, what filled up the rest of the court’s time were procedural matters. The judge scheduled one more motion before the presentation of evidence. The state’s attorney will meet with representatives for the three defendants (they each have separate lawyers) in December to cap the number of witnesses. As of now the prosecution has a hefty list of 113 persons ready to give testimony. The actual trial will not begin until January.
Additionally, the results of an independent mental health review that Ben-David’s lawyer had asked for in the last meeting were not submitted, or rather they were not brought up at all.
When the pre-trial closed, the two minors and Ben-David walked handcuffed with police escorts towards a rear stairwell. One of the accused youths crouched with his head inside his sweatshirt, preventing a glimpse of his unknown face. The identities of the accused youths are sealed because they are minors.
But Ben-David, he strolled. His gaze was stoic, locking eyes with media workers.
The murder trial is part spectacle. Journalists came, in part, to log Ben-David’s moves. The settler from Adam is mounting an insanity defense, authentically or otherwise. In his first court appearance, Ben David announced that he is “the messiah.” Since then no one has heard him speak except for occasional mumbling noises he made during his last court appearance in October.
“He looked me in the eye and he didn’t take his eyes off of me. That was scary,” said Amsam Abu Khdeir, of the accused’s October appearance in the justice hall. Yet this time, Ben-David avoided eye contact during the hearing, staring off into space, unresponsive to his own name.
However, weeks ago state mental health officials reviewed Ben-David and deemed him of sound mind.
“He’s not crazy! He’s not crazy,” said Amsam Abu Khdeir emphatically. “He planned to kidnap and murder a kid. If you read the whole deposition he talks about exactly what he did,” she said referring to a play-by-play confession Ben-David gave to police before the hearing started. He even led them on a reenactment tour. “That’s the craziest thing that I’ve heard. ‘That I’m crazy, but I can plan.’”
After his July indictment, in chilling detail Ben-David recounted the facts of the crime. He said one of the minors choked Abu Khdeir. He admitted to beating him with a metal pole. Then he said the three of them poured gasoline on him and Ben-David fired up the lighter. “We were hot and angry, and decided we’d burn something of the Arabs’,” he told police. The confessed even showed remorse in the policing questioning—albeit remorse tinged with racism and notions of Jewish supremacy, telling his interrogator after the crime he told the other defendants: “We had a purpose but this is not for us. We were wrong. We are merciful Jews. We are human beings.”
Ben-David also admitted that days before Abu Khdeir was abducted he and one of the indicted minors were responsible for a failed kidnapping of seven-year old Mousa Zaloum who was nearly grabbed off of the same street where the three found Abu Khdeir. That child’s mother struck the kidnappers ultimately chasing them away. The police were called. Nothing happened. Then a few days later Abu Khdeir was taken.
The stakes are high for Ben-David. If he’s found guilty of the gruesome murder and abduction he will be issued a mandatory life sentence. Alternatively if he succeeds in a presentation of not being criminally liable due to insanity, he will be ushered off to a mental hospital and released upon regaining his health. That could happen in as little as a six-months stay in a psychological ward. But in some sense, the state is already being harsh with him. It implemented a Mandate-era law that forbids the presence of lawyers when questioned, only employed for Israeli-Jews once or twice in Israel’s history according to the lawyer for the victim’s family.
“It’s sadness and it’s anger; it’s mixed feelings when you hear people talking about Mohammed,” said Amsam Abu Khdeir. Her family is a national exhibition, of unattainable justice. There was a media circus this summer when Abu Khdeir’s cousin, Tareq Abu Khdeir, 15, was brought in front of cameras for the first time after Israeli police beat and arrested him. CCTV footage showed the younger Abu Khdeir as he slipped out of consciousness from blows to the head by border police during protest in the wake of his cousin’s killing.
“After Mohammed, everything just exploded,” said cousin Amsam Abu Khdeir. Following her relative’s murder, Shuafat, once a quiet leafy Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem, descended into constant chaos. Palestinians demonstrated around the clock for nearly a week over the police’s ineptitude and crackdown. Her family endured an investigation that fingered Abu Khdeir’s father, rather than looking into the killing as a nationalistically motivated crime by Israeli-Jewish settlers. The police even distributed false claims that the youth was murdered by his family because he was gay. Border authorities also stationed themselves outside of the family home, firing tear gas into the mourners tent.
“Actually, there’s a lot of tension. There’s a lot of police cars everywhere,” continued Amsam Abu Khdeir, describing how Shuafat has remained embroiled in clashes between Palestinians and the authorities. “Every 10 meters you see soldiers, or police rather,” she said. Just last week, police called Amsam Abu Khdeir’s father and uncle and told them the memorial banner bearing Mohammed’s face was illegal and must be taken down.
The hearing comes at a time of growing discomfort for Palestinians with Israeli policies. This week, the Israeli knesset is considering a law that would state, “the State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish People,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a cabinet meeting on Sunday. The law would also strike Arabic as one of the state’s national languages.
The Abu Khdeir family has witnessed another unequal application of Israeli law. On Monday, Netanyahu called for the sealing or demolition of the homes of six Palestinians who are alleged to have killed or tried to kill Israelis. The Abu Khdeir’s have been calling for weeks for the demolition of the homes of the defendants in their son’s case, to no avail. “Everyone knows that they [the defendants] are monsters and they are killers. They murdered my cousin in cold blood,” said Amsam Abu Khdeir.
After weeks of trial delays, her frustrations are peaking. “At least to give them prison for life– I don’t know what to say,” she said. “Actually I hope they are burned alive like my cousin.” Such sentiments are heard commonly these days in Jerusalem, on both sides of the conflict.