JERUSALEM — Confronting the possibility of spiraling retaliatory violence between Jews and Palestinians, the Israeli authorities arrested six Israelis on Sunday in the killing of a Palestinian teenager, found beaten and burned in a Jerusalem forest last week.
After days of near silence about the case, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned what he called a horrific crime and pledged that anyone found guilty would “face the full weight of the law.’’ Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli defense minister, said in a statement that he was “ashamed and shocked by the cruel murder,’’ describing those behind it as “Jewish terrorists.’’
An Israeli police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, said there was a “strong possibility’’ that the motive for the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, was “nationalistic,’’ indicating that it was a revenge attack by right-wing Jewish extremists for the recent kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Mohammed’s body was discovered Wednesday, about an hour after he was forced into a car in East Jerusalem, a few yards from his home.
A judicial gag order prevented officials from revealing details about the suspects, but a person familiar with the case said several of them were minors.
The arrests came after weeks of calls for harsher Israeli military action in the Palestinian territories after the abduction of the teenagers: Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16. After their bodies were found last week, Netanyahu called their killers “beasts.’’
The crackdown in the West Bank shook the Palestinian Authority and its reconciliation pact with Hamas in Gaza, weakening the more moderate West Bank leadership in the eyes of its public as it seeks international support for statehood.
In the wave of outrage after Mohammed’s killing, Palestinian youths have clashed with Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem and Galilee in scenes reminiscent of the Palestinian uprisings in 1987 and 2000.
The killings on each side — and the subsequent arrest of the Palestinian’s American cousin, whose beating by the Israeli police was caught on video — have raised the specter of the broader conflict’s descending into a cycle of personal vendettas and bloodletting.
“It gives legitimacy to our enemies to do what they want to us,’’ said Shaul Marziano, 65, a retired Israeli factory worker. “They should be treated just like Arab terrorists,’’ he said of the Israelis suspected of killing Mohammed.
Now, Israelis are left to face the prospect that the entrenched conflict with the Palestinians is intensifying radicalization within both populations.
Some Israelis compared the moment on Sunday to that of watershed events like the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 by a right-wing Israeli fanatic, or the massacre by Baruch Goldstein, a U.S.-born Israeli doctor, of 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer in 1994 in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.
“This is a wake-up call,’’ said professor Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, accusing the government and the security services of not having dealt seriously enough in recent years with an extreme, nationalist fringe that has desecrated mosques and destroyed Palestinian property. Now, with the killing of Mohammed, Avineri said, “a line has been crossed.’’
“This is absolute evil,’’ he added.
In addition to the rioting, tensions spiked along the border with Gaza in the south, with Palestinian militants firing at least 25 rockets in Israel on Sunday and Israel carrying out airstrikes.
Hamas, the Islamic group that dominates Gaza, said Monday that seven of its militants had been killed in airstrikes Sunday and early Monday, probably the heaviest death toll suffered by the group since a cease-fire came into effect in late 2012. In addition, two militants thought to belong to a more radical Islamic group were killed in an airstrike. Israel said they had been involved in firing rockets.
For Netanyahu, Sunday’s arrests were clearly a pivotal moment. He has been lobbied by right-wingers in his government to take tougher action against the Palestinians since the bodies of the three Israeli teenagers were found last week, and in the wake of increasing rocket fire from Gaza.
But Netanyahu is already out of step with world opinion, being held partly responsible by the Obama administration for scuttling U.S.-brokered Middle East peace talks with repeated announcements of new settlement construction.
After paying a condolence call to the family of one of the Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu stood before television cameras and sent his condolences to the Abu Khdeir family. “We do not differentiate between terrorists, and we will respond to all of them,’’ he said.
But after weeks of taking the Palestinian leadership to task for having entered into the pact with Hamas, which Israel accuses of killing the three Israelis, Netanyahu also appeared unbowed.
“The murderers came from the territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority; they returned to territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority,’’ he said. “Therefore, the Palestinian Authority is obliged to do everything in its power to find them, just as we did, just as our security forces located the suspects in the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir within a matter of days.’’
Rosenfeld said the police and security services were trying to determine whether the suspects had also tried to kidnap a Palestinian child, Mousa Zaloum, 8, from the same area of East Jerusalem a day before Mohammed was abducted. Mousa was later photographed with red marks on his neck, and in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 News, the boy said the would-be kidnappers had choked him with a rope. Mousa’s mother struggled with the kidnappers, who she said were speaking Hebrew, and her son escaped.
Mohammed’s relatives, who were convinced from the outset that the killers were Israelis, felt no immediate comfort or satisfaction over the arrests.
“I feel pain,’’ his father, Hussein Abu Khdeir, said, as he sat in a tent surrounded by mourners outside the family home in the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem. “There is no justice in Israel.’’
The Palestinian leadership demanded an international commission of inquiry into the killing.
During the clashes in Shuafat, Mohammed’s cousin Tariq Abu Khdeir, 15, a high school sophomore visiting from Tampa, Florida, was caught on an amateur video being severely beaten by Israeli border police officers. The footage was spread worldwide Saturday, fanning local and international outrage.
On Sunday, Tariq, who is suspected of involvement in violence against police officers, appeared in court, his face and lips swollen from the blows. He was released on bail but will be under house arrest at his uncle’s home, not far from where Mohammed lived. A State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, called for “a speedy, transparent and credible investigation and full accountability for the apparent excessive use of force.’’
Tariq said he lost consciousness during the beating and was taken to a hospital. He said he had only been watching the clashes. Seeing the video of himself being beaten for the first time Sunday afternoon, he said he was shocked. “I don’t believe what happened to me,’’ he said.
He added that he had been with Mohammed five minutes before he was kidnapped.