JERUSALEM (AP) — A Jerusalem court on Monday convicted two Israeli youths in the grisly killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian boy whose slaying was part of a chain of events that led to last year's Gaza war.
The court delayed the verdict for the third and chief suspect in the case due to a last-minute insanity plea, sparking claims that Israel is too lenient with Jewish assailants.
The court found the two Israeli minors guilty of killing Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was kidnapped, beaten unconscious and then burned alive in July 2014. Their names were not released under Israeli law. The sentencing of the two is expected in mid-January.
The delay of the verdict for suspected ringleader Yosef Haim Ben David, 31, infuriated many Palestinians, who contend that Israel is too lenient on Jewish offenders while dealing harshly with Palestinians.
The developments could also further increase Israeli-Palestinian tensions amid a two-month wave of violence that has convulsed the region.
Abu Khdeir's father Hussein denounced the proceedings. "This is a lie," he told Israeli Army Radio. "I am afraid that the court will release them in the end."
An aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said it was "unprecedented" for the court to accept the insanity plea the day of the verdict, rather than during the subsequent appeal.
"This development shows that the first defendant in this case will be either acquitted or gets a mitigation excuse," Ahmad Rwaidi said.
In his ruling, Judge Jacob Zaban determined that Ben David and the two minors snatched Abu Khdeir off an east Jerusalem sidewalk in July 2014 and burned him alive in a forest west of the city.
The judge found that Ben David drove the car while the two youths beat Abu Khdeir unconscious in the back seat. Once they reached the forest, one accomplice helped Ben David douse Abu Khdeir with gasoline. Then Ben David lit the match, according to Zaban.
The three suspects were arrested shortly after the July 2, 2014 abduction and confessed to the killing to investigators with Israel's Shin Bet, the security agency said.
According to the agency, the three said that Abu Khdeir's slaying was in revenge for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens — Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel — by Hamas operatives in the West Bank.
The deaths of the three Israelis triggered an Israeli crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank. Hamas responded with rocket fire on Israel from the Gaza Strip, which it controls. The confrontation escalated into a 50-day war in which more than 2,200 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, were killed, according to U.N. figures. On the Israeli side, 73 people were killed, most of them soldiers.
Late last week, Ben David's attorney, Asher Ohayon, submitted the insanity plea. Zaban said the late timing was "against regular and appropriate protocol," but said the court would examine it and issue a verdict later in December.
Hamas condemned what it called an "exoneration" of Ben David. "This is an evidence of the occupation's racism and its sponsorship of the settlers' crimes against the Palestinian people," the Islamic militant group said in a statement.
Haifa University legal expert Emanuel Gross said the late insanity plea was "unbecoming behavior," though the trial was still fair.
Israel has a mandatory life sentence for adults convicted of murder, Gross said. Minors found guilty of murder can be held for life, but the punishment is usually lighter, he said.
During the trial, one of the convicted Israeli minors claimed he did not realize the three of them would kill Abu Khdeir, while the other said he took part in strangling the Palestinian youth in the car and pouring gasoline on his motionless body. Ben David did not testify.
The two minors were 16 years old at the time of the crime, according to attorney Avi Himi, who is representing one of the youths.
In a related case, a Jerusalem court earlier this month sentenced a police officer to six weeks of community service for beating Abu Khdeir's cousin — 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir, of Tampa, Florida — during a July 2014 protest over Mohammed's killing. The U.S. State Department said it was "disappointed" with that sentence.
Monday's convictions come amid a wave of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians that has left 19 Israelis and at least 98 Palestinians dead, including 63 said by Israel to be attackers. On Sunday, Israeli police killed a 17-year-old Palestinian in east Jerusalem who Israel says was throwing a firebomb at Israeli forces.
Israel says the violence stems from Palestinian incitement and incendiary videos on social media. The Palestinians say the violence is rooted in frustration over a lack of hope for obtaining independence.
Prosecutor Uri Corb said Monday that the Abu Khdeir murder case was a stain on Israeli society. "When we try to claim we are better than our enemies ... we will always have this incident as a mirror," Corb said.
Palestinians say the Israeli justice system is too lenient on Jewish attackers. In July, suspected Jewish arsonists set fire to a home in the West Bank village of Duma, killing a Palestinian toddler and his two parents.
Israel has yet to arrest or charge anyone in the attack, but four Israeli extremists have been detained for six months without charge under a measure usually reserved for Palestinians suspected of plotting attacks. Israeli officials have not said whether the four are linked to the arson.