An Israeli court today convicted two Jewish minors who abducted and burned Mohammed Abu Khdeir alive in July 2014. Abu Khdeir was a 16-year old Palestinian from Jerusalem whose killing sparked months of unrest across the holy city, and many Palestinian believe initiated the start of the 51-day war in Gaza that summer. The court delayed ruling on the alleged ringleader, 29-year old settler Yosef Haim Ben-David for whom prosecutors sought a life sentence. In an eleventh hour motion lawyers representing Ben-David submitted an additional psychiatric evaluation claiming the lead defendant suffered from mental illness from the age of 13, further prolonging the trial that began last year.
Sentencing terms for the two minors is expected in late December. While the harshest penalty for murder for an adult is life in prison, there is no standard maximum sentence in Israel for minors convicted of the same crimes, said Mohanned Jabara, a lawyer representing the Abu Khdeir family.
Moreover if the court rules Ben-David was not mentally sound when he committed the kidnapping and murder, Ben-David will evade life in prison and serve time in a psychiatric ward until he is deemed mentally fit and released.
“Frankly I was shocked. I hoped they all would get a punishment,” said the mother of the victim, Suha Abu Khdeir, 45, from her living room hours after the trial ended. “It’s like they burned him again,” Suha continued between resting her head in her hands, “This court is worthless. At the least they should be in jail until they die.”
“We have complicated feelings,” Ansam Abu Khdeir, 28, said, a cousin of the deceased, “We don’t know what to feel, we already know there is no justice here in Israel,” she continued.
Days after the three Israelis abducted Mohammed from his backyard they gave a full admission to the police. In a rare move Israel enacted a British mandatory law still on the books revoking their right to an attorney during the interrogation. The accused detailed the plans made in advance to kill an Arab, in retribution for an earlier murder and abduction of three Israeli teens near a West Bank settlement.
Once Abu Khdeir was abducted, the three Israelis beat him with a crow bar and poured gasoline down his throat. After incinerating him alive, they dumped his’s body in a West Jerusalem field. During police questioning the three were filmed re-enacting the crime.
During the trial Israeli security services showed a video of the defendants practicing striking a potential Palestinian victim, filmed a few days before they committed the murder.
“They said ‘we were playing karate’” Aisha Abu Khdeir, 55, Mohammed’s Aunt said who saw the footage in court. “The police have everything. How they did it, how they planned it.”
From the outset of the trial the Abu Khdeir family was not convinced Israel would hand down harsh sentences. They look to past examples of settler violence against Palestinians that ended without convictions. The Israeli human rights law firm Yesh Din reported earlier this year only 1.7% of settlers are indicted for acts of violence against Palestinians and their property. The Palestinian government logged more than 1000 instances of settler violence during 2014.
Over the course of the hearing many from the Abu Khdeir family said they want their relative’s killers to receive the same treatment as Palestinians accused of killing Israelis. “They kill him first, they demolish their house, they arrest their families,” said Ansam, referring to Israel’s renewed policy of leveling the homes of Palestinians accused of killing Israelis in knife attacks over recent months. As for Jewish extremists who carry out similar acts, Israel’s high court ruled this year that destroying their homes would not be a deterrent because, they found, settler violence against Palestinians is not an ongoing issue.
“Every time the trial is happening we feel it coming all at once again,” said Ansam who tearfully explained the 22 court sessions in the past year were a constant reminder of the gruesome way in which Mohammed was killed. “It’s not getting any easier for us,” she said. Mohammed’s parents both take sleep aides.
“It’s endless, I mean it. You see what happened to Mohammed, it happened to the Dawabshe’s”—Ansam added, referring to the West Bank family of four who was similarly burned in a settler arson attack last July that killed both parents and their infant son, critically injuring their eldest child, four-year-old Ahmad Dawasbshe who is still recovering in an Israeli hospital.
“Actually I wish I was at the house and saw him that morning,” Ansam said reflecting back on her cousin’s last morning alive when he sat outside with three of his cousins before morning prayers during the holy month of Ramadan. After a moment together, Mohammed was left outside alone while the others went back into the family home. When they returned minutes later, Mohammed was gone, already kidnapped.