Killing of Palestinian youth Abu Khdeir puts Israeli focus on extremism

Six suspects linked to far-right groups with ultra-Orthodox backgrounds

Palestinians mourn for Palestinian teenager Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, outside his home in Jerusale last week. Photograph: Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times

Palestinians mourn for Palestinian teenager Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, outside his home in Jerusale last week. Photograph: Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times


Even as the Israeli public offers strong support for air strikes on Hamas fighters and their weapons stocks in Gaza there is a good deal of reflection over the cold-blooded killing of a Palestinian teenager that helped lead to the latest increase in violence.

Brutality against innocents is not new on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, despite a court order that bans the disclosure of information in the case, Israelis have been discussing links between the suspects arrested in the killing of the teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and Israeli right-wing extremist groups that have at times operated with impunity. Very little about the six suspects has been confirmed, because of the court order. But several Israeli media outlets have linked them to extremist groups, describing them as “shababnikkim”, pejorative Hebrew slang for right-wing extremist youth from ultra-Orthodox homes on the fringes of Orthodox society.

Lawyers for Honenu, a right-wing legal aid organisation that often defends soldiers and civilians in cases involving attacks on Arabs, said they were representing the suspects. While no charges had been filed, Israeli media reported that three suspects had confessed and three were scheduled to be released.

The apparent link to the far right prompted some to bemoan the decay of society’s moral underpinning, with a small group of extremists becoming more brazen.

The phenomenon has been traced to the yeshiva student who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995; Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994; and even to the 1980s, when a “Jewish underground” put explosives in Palestinian buses. “The moral blindness has afflicted Israelis in general,” Anshel Pfeffer, a respected chronicler of Jewish extremism, wrote in the newspaper Haaretz. “We are all partners in this, accomplices in complacency, if not in deed.”

Deborah Weissman, an educator and president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, said the Palestinian teenager’s killing showed that “we are not immune to extremism, that extremist, religious terror can occur in many, maybe in any, religion”.

Marginal phenomenon

She said that although the killers appeared to represent “a very marginal phenomenon,” their very existence demanded that Jewish Israelis reflect on their identity and history.

“We have to present a different view of Jewish history, one that is not about being the absolute victim, and then discuss what the implications are of becoming a state,” she said.

“There were times in Jewish history when Jews were victims and powerless, but when you have power you have to exercise it wisely and morally.”

The killing was described by Israeli officials as revenge for the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers whose bodies were found in shallow graves in the West Bank. The four deaths escalated tensions that had been growing since the collapse of US-led peace talks and have now set off another round of fighting. Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has reportedly killed some 78 people, including women and children, while Hamas terrifies Israelis with rockets reaching far into the north of the country.

According to Ynet, an Israeli news site, the suspects have been closely acquainted for years and the oldest among them, a man of 30, was driving the car that spirited Abu Khdeir away. The other two who will remain in detention are 17 and are suspected of having played an active part in the murder, Ynet said.

The older man is reportedly the son of a well-known rabbi; takes psychiatric medication; and lives in the settlement of Adam near Jerusalem.

Others are said to come from Har Nof, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood, and Beit Shemesh, but none of these details has been confirmed.

Most reports describe the suspects as outliers in Israeli society, ultra-Orthodox who are often yeshiva dropouts who have picked up some of the anti-Arab views that can be found in some rabbinical writings. The word “shababnikkim” is rooted in the Arabic “shabab”, which means “the youth”, and in Israeli society the word is associated with stone-throwing hooligans.

Football hooligans

There have been reports that some of the suspects were “football hooligans,” fervent fans of Beitar Jerusalem, a local soccer team that has a reputation for attracting anti-Arab, nationalist followers. An article in a U

S online publication, Tablet, suggested the suspects were part of a more radical group within the Beitar fan base called La Familia. The article was based in part on an article in BuzzFeed that asserted the six had criminal records and met through their allegiance to the team.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld and one of the lawyers for the suspects both said they had no knowledge that would confirm a link between the suspects and La Familia. But the soccer hooligan angle was part of the larger focus on increasing right-wing extremism, including something called “price tag” attacks, and how that fed the undercurrent of hate and dehumanization of Arabs occurring in a segment of the society.

The so-called price tag attacks are carried out by organised groups on the fringes of the settler movement that adhere to an “eye for an eye” philosophy, exacting a price for perceived wrongs, even if that means breaking the law.

Tamir Lion, an anthropologist who studies youth, said he was troubled by the changing attitudes among Israel’s young people. For many years, Lion interviewed soldiers about why they chose to enter combat units. “The answers,” he said on Israel Radio, “were always about the challenge, to show I could make it, the prestige involved.”

‘To kill Arabs’

That began to change in 2000, he said. “I started to get answers – not a lot, but some – like: ‘To kill Arabs.’ The first time I heard it, it was at the time of the large terror attacks, and since then it has not stopped.”

A generation has grown up in a period of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with suicide bombs and military incursions, rocket fire and air strikes. Young people on both sides may think about the other more as an enemy than as a neighbour. Lion, head of research at the Ethos Institute, said he was troubled. “Today I can say, and everyone who works with youth will say it, Jewish youth in Israel hate Arabs without connection to their parents or their own party affiliation and their own political opinions.”

– (New York Times service)

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