JERUSALEM — The Israeli eyeglass-shop owner accused of burning an Arab teenager alive last month led a “hunting expedition” to kill a Palestinian to avenge the murder of three Israeli yeshiva students, prosecutors say.
Many Israelis say they were appalled to see one of their own charged with murdering an Arab child. The revenge killing undercut Israel’s sense of moral superiority and exposed Israel to charges that Jewish extremists follow the same rules as Palestinian terror cells.
The criminal indictment against Yosef Haim Ben-David, 30, portrays him as a remorseless night stalker who prowled Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, armed with bottles of gasoline and plastic handcuffs, looking for a weak, vulnerable victim.
Ben-David’s attorneys have suggested that their client is mentally ill. Israeli police reports say he was taking medication for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Court filings show he was arrested briefly in 2012 after he told his therapist that he thought about strangling his infant daughter.
In a recent courtroom appearance, Ben-David proclaimed, “I am the messiah!” — an outburst that the families of his Arab victims fear was a calculated attempt to evade justice with an insanity defense.
The crime has roiled the deeply conservative, ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof, where the defendant’s father, a prominent rabbi named Saadiah Ben-David, raised 13 children and teaches classes in Jewish law at a yeshiva.
“This is against our Holy Torah and against the law,” the father was quoted as telling the Israeli Ynet news agency.
Yosef Haim Ben-David’s eyewear shop is in Geula, a dense, bustling commercial district in a religious neighborhood of Jerusalem. The store’s stock was recently cleared out and the business shuttered.
“He was a really good man. He was friends with everyone here,” said Yehuda Afgani, who works at a neighboring shop.
“I don’t care about the other guy,” Afgani said, referring to Ben-David’s teenage victim. “That’s what the stress of living here does to us.”
Ben-David rented a house in the Adam community, one of the Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank that are considered by much of the world to be a violation of international law, though Israel disputes this.
When Ben-David was arrested before dawn July 6, by plainclothes police wearing masks, neighbors first thought it was a terrorist attack.
His settlement boasts single-family villas, bougainvillea and sweeping views of the Judean hills. Neighbors said they had seen little of Ben-David since he moved to their quiet cul-de-sac 18 months ago. His wife was pleasant but kept to herself, minding their toddler daughter, they said.
Ben-David commonly wore jeans and brightly colored shirts instead of the black-and-white clothing of his ultra-Orthodox community.
A few days before the killing, he showed up two hours late to a Saturday religious service with his two teenage nephews, according to Rabbi Gur Lavi.
“They laughed and gave some excuse,” Lavi said. “This was not a serious man.”
The yeshiva of Ben-David’s father referred reporters to a family spokeswoman, who said Ben-David has had psychiatric issues since adolescence. She said his two accomplices, who were not named by authorities because they are minors, are relatives of his.
“Everyone here was against it. There is no ideology here of killing non-Jews,” said an elderly Jewish scholar with a long white beard and a tall black hat, sitting in a hushed room in a yeshiva filled with heavy books.
Ben-David’s first attack allegedly came after news broke June 13 of the kidnapping of the three Israeli yeshiva students as they hitchhiked home from the West Bank.
After midnight on June 15, Ben-David and a young accomplice went to an Arab-owned store. They broke the windows with a crowbar, poured gasoline inside and lit it on fire, the indictment said.
The victim of the attack, Raed Abu Khalil, 40, a father of eight, said Ben-David had often bought cigarettes with no problems.
“Thank God it was only the store,” Abu Khalil said in an interview. “It could have been one of my children.”
The discovery of the bodies of the three Jewish kidnapping victims on June 30 was an emotionally charged moment in Israel.
“Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created. Neither has vengeance for the blood of 3 pure youths who were on their way home to their parents,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on his Twitter account.
Late that night, Ben-David told one of his accomplices, a yeshiva student, “We have to take revenge against the Arabs,” according to the indictment.
The student changed into secular clothes and joined Ben-David on a drive to East Jerusalem, where Arab families were strolling after breaking the Ramadan fast.
There they spotted Deema Zalloum in a Muslim headscarf and a long coat, pushing a stroller with her 6-month-old daughter as her sons Yahia, 8, and Musa, 7, walked nearby.
The yeshiva student grabbed Musa “around his throat in a strangling position” and dragged him toward Ben-David’s Honda, the indictment said.
“My only thought was to rescue my son,” Zalloum recalled in an interview. She hit her son’s abductor on the head with her cellphone.
The teenage assailant punched her in the face and shoved her to the ground, kicking her with his boots “with hatred,” she said. Zalloum blacked out. Her sons escaped to a nearby dry cleaner, and the workers ran outside, but Ben-David and his accomplice sped away.
The July 1 funeral for the kidnapped Israeli youths prompted a national outpouring of grief. Late that night, Ben-David met at his eyeglass shop with the yeshiva student, 17, and a second accomplice, a toy-store clerk, 16, and suggested that they try to kidnap and kill an Arab, the indictment said.
They drove to Adam, removed the child seat in Ben-David’s car to make room for a victim and stopped in Hizmeh to fill bottles with gasoline, the indictment alleged.
Near a gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, the assailants stopped to offer Arab children cigarettes but failed to coax them into the car, the document said.
Finally, in the Shuafat district of East Jerusalem, they allegedly approached Mohammad Abu Khieder, who was 17 but looked younger. He was on his way to dawn prayers at the mosque.
Abu Khieder became suspicious and tried to call a friend, but the teenagers wrestled him into the car, and they sped away as Abu Khieder’s uncle shouted helplessly, the indictment said.
In the car, the yeshiva student allegedly choked Abu Khieder until he lost consciousness. At the Jerusalem Forest, Abu Khieder made a sound, and Ben-David clubbed him with a wrench twice, calling out the names of the families of the kidnapping victims, according to the indictment.
The medical examination showed that Abu Khieder was still alive when Ben-David allegedly set him on fire.
Afterward, the trio returned to Adam, played guitar and slept, the indictment said.
After Abu Khieder’s body was discovered, his family was incensed when Israeli investigators asked if the violence had been part of a family feud, or if Abu Khieder had been gay and was slain in an honor killing.
When the arrests of the suspects were announced July 6, authorities said that “nationalistic” motives were behind the murder.
Ben-David was initially provided representation by Honenu, a legal aid group whose clients have included Jewish settlers accused of shooting Arabs, vandals who have spray-painted anti-Arab slogans and defaced mosques and churches, and soldiers charged with human rights abuses. His first lawyer told the news media that Ben-David would plead temporary insanity.
Families of the Arab victims were outraged.
“This was premeditated. It shows they’re not crazy,” said Rami Zalloum, the husband of the woman who, with her child, was attacked in East Jerusalem. “Always, when they commit a crime against an Arab, they’re crazy.”
Orly Halpern, Sufian Taha and Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.