JERUSALEM — Two Israeli youths were convicted of murder Monday for the revenge killing last year of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy who was burned alive in a random reprisal for the slayings of three Israeli students.
The deaths were part of domino-effect violence that led to a nearly two-month war in the Gaza Strip.
The three-judge panel, however, delayed the verdict against the alleged ringleader, 31-year-old Yosef Haim Ben-David, whose lawyer filed a last-minute petition that his client was insane and not responsible for his acts.
The decision by the court to consider the insanity claim sparked demonstrations and quick condemnation from Arab Israeli lawmakers and the family of the murdered teen, Mohammad Abu Khdeir, who was abducted by Jewish extremists and burned alive in a Jerusalem forest.
Police said Khdeir was targeted in revenge for the killings of three Israeli yeshiva students who were abducted and killed while hitchhiking in the West Bank. The Israeli military blames a terrorist cell affiliated with the Islamist militant group Hamas.
The murders of the three Israeli teens and Khdeir were links in a chain of violence that led to the Gaza war in the summer of 2014 between Israeli forces and Hamas, which controls Gaza.
According to figures in a U.N.-backed report issued in June, 2,251 Palestinians were killed during the hostilities, which included Hamas rockets fired into Israel and shelling into Gaza by Israeli gunners. Six Israeli civilians and 67 Israeli soldiers were killed.
During the trial, Ben-David did not take the stand and gave only mumbled answers during the proceedings. In a pretrial hearing, he shouted: “I am the Messiah!”
Many Israelis say they were appalled by the revenge killing, which was widely condemned and exposed Israel to charges that it turned a blind eye toward Jewish extremism. Ben-David lived in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and is the son an ultra-Orthodox rabbi.
Earlier this year, arsonists believed to be Jewish radicals torched a home in the Palestinian village of Duma in the West Bank, killing a toddler and his parents. No one has been charged in the attack. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has said the suspects were known but have not been arrested to protect intelligence sources.
The prosecutor and the family of the slain teen contend that Ben-David is not insane, and they point to statements he made before and after the murder as showing him to be lucid.
“Like many times in the past, when the murderers are Jews, the legal system protects them,” said Ayman Odeh, leader of a coalition of Arab-Israeli members of parliament, reacting to the court’s decision to consider the insanity claim.
“The state is sending a clear message of forgiveness and understanding when it comes to Jewish terror,” he said.
“It’s all a lie. I’m afraid that the court will eventually get them off the hook,” said Hussein Abu Khdeir, the slain teen’s father, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The father, who has attended the court proceedings, wondered aloud why the Israeli army had not destroyed the houses of the minors and Ben-David as Israel does with suspected Palestinian terrorists.
Palestinian assailants with knives, guns and vehicles have killed at least 19 Israelis in a wave of violence over the past two months. Almost 100 Palestinians have been killed, either at the scenes of attacks or in violent demonstrations. In some cases, Palestinians charge, protesters and others were the victims of summary executions.
“If they were Arabs, their homes would have been demolished immediately,” said the elder Abu Khdeir, a member of a prominent Palestinian family with branches that reach to the United States. “Because they burned my son alive, people today are stabbing.”
The criminal indictment against Ben-David portrayed him as a remorseless night stalker who prowled the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem hunting for a weak, vulnerable victim.
Ben-David and the two unnamed minors confessed to the crime and even reenacted the grisly murder for investigators, according to police.
During the trial, the two minors testified that it was Ben-David who persuaded them to kidnap Abu Khdeir. One teen claimed he stayed in the car as Abu Khdeir was burned to death. The young defendants claimed that Ben-David gave them “pills and energy drinks.”
The two minors are scheduled for sentencing in January.
Additional hearings will be held to decide the admissibility and relevance of Ben-David’s psychological claims. It is possible the court will rule the insanity claim inadmissible and then convict Ben-David of murder, as the judges appeared ready to do on Monday. If convicted, he could face life in prison.