Investigation of Abu Khdeir murder tainted by racism, police incompetence

Between shoddy work and a culture of racism toward Palestinians, it is no wonder that the police failed to prevent the brutal murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

On Wednesday night, Israel’s Channel 10 broadcast a one-hour investigative report that delves deeply into the circumstances surrounding the murder of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Last July three Jewish Israelis, a 29-year-old man and two teenage boys, abducted Abu Khdeir into their car from a main street near his home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood Shuafat, beat him and drove him to a nearby wooded area where they burned him alive. Arrested and interrogated by police, the three suspects confessed to and re-enacted the murder, which they said was in revenge for the murders of three Jewish boys abducted by Hebron-area men who were linked to Hamas.

And Israel border policeman outside the Abu Khdeir home in Shuafat, East Jerusalem Sept. 7, 2014 (Photo: Tamar Fleishman)
And Israel border policeman outside the Abu Khdeir home in Shuafat, East Jerusalem Sept. 7, 2014 (Photo: Tamar Fleishman)

The abduction and immolation of Mohammed Abu Khdeir shocked Israelis and was the catalyst for violent demonstrations in East Jerusalem. Riot police responded by invading East Jerusalem and using crowd control methods ranging from tear gas and rubber bullets to severe beatings and mass arrests. The Gaza War distracted attention from the situation in Jerusalem for a while, but the violence never really abated. In recent weeks the situation has deteriorated even further, with the city now caught in a worrying cycle of violence that feels very combustible. Lone Palestinians have carried out stabbings and deliberate hit-and-runs against Jewish civilians, while paramilitary police have responded with increasing violence. Gunfire, tear gas beatings and mass arrests continue every night, into the pre-dawn hours.

Journalist Yisrael Rosner investigative report into the Abu Khdeir murder is presented — in Jerusalem, rather than from Channel 10’s Tel Aviv-area studios — by Raviv Drucker and Razi Barkai, both prominent veteran journalists. Summing up at the end, Drucker boils the story down to two elements: police incompetence and an ingrained culture of racism toward Palestinians.

Neither shoddy police work nor anti-Arab prejudice is new to Israeli society, and there is a tendency to shrug these things off with a disapproving click of the tongue and a sigh. But Abu Khdeir’s murder was so shocking that it did succeed in penetrating the mainstream Israeli consciousness, making the investigation relevant and timely. In his report, Rosner examines the question of whether or not the police could have prevented the murder. He also looks into one of the initial police claims, made at the start of the investigation and widely reported by the Israeli media, that Abu Khdeir might have been murdered by his own family because they had discovered he was a homosexual.

Muhammad Abu Khdeir.
Muhammad Abu Khdeir.

The three men who murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir had attempted the previous night to abduct someone else – a 7 year-old boy named Mousa Zaloum. This story was reported many weeks ago, by both the Israeli and international media, but without follow up. Rosner re-interviews the family and then the police spokesperson, and discovers that the police never investigated the attempted abduction of the little boy. Mousa’s parents, obviously still deeply shaken at having nearly seen their son murdered, recount the abduction attempt in detail that shocks the viewer. The would-be abductors had seen the boy on the street accompanied by his mother, who was pushing a younger sibling in a stroller. They grabbed him around the neck and tried to drag him, using a rope that left scars on the boy’s neck. The mother, hearing her son’s screams, ran to fight off his attackers. When she succeeded in freeing him they turned on her, beating her and smashing her mobile phone. Later, they told police that they’d beaten the mother in order to prevent her from having more children. Eyewitnesses and the mother told police the attackers had been Jewish Israelis who spoke Hebrew, and CCTV cameras on the street recorded the incident. But the police did not investigate or conduct any follow up until after Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s body was found.

The police also tried to imply, at one point shortly after Abu Khdeir’s body was discovered, that the Palestinian teenager might have been killed as a result of an internecine dispute — a clan-based fight (the Abu Khdeir family is the largest in Shuafat, with about 800 members according to various media reports). They had no evidence to support this claim, but they did have a source for that other claim, that Abu Khdeir’s own relatives had murdered him in a so-called “honor killing,” because he was gay. That source was a Facebook page discovered by an Israeli journalist.

According to Elinor Sidi, the executive director of the Jerusalem Open House, a reporter from Reshet Bet (Israel Radio) called her to ask if Mohammed Abu Khdeir was a member of the openly gay Jerusalem community. Sidi told him that she had never heard of Abu Khdeir and that he was not part of their community. The reporter’s source was a Facebook page attributed to the Jerusalem Open House, with a status expressing sorrow over the death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Sidi notes that the cadence of the writing is very similar to her own. But the Facebook page was fake and she did not write the status. The police know this now, but they never apologized to the family. Nor did they use the IP address to track down the person or persons who created the fake Facebook page, which after all ended up wasting police time and diverting attention and manpower from the investigation.

Palestinian residents of Shuafat stand above the body of Muhammad Abu Khdeir during his funeral. (photo: Activestills)
Palestinian residents of Shuafat stand above the body of Muhammad Abu Khdeir during his funeral. (photo: Activestills)

And despite eyewitnesses who said the would-be abductors had spoken Hebrew, not to mention the existence of color CCTV footage showing the three abductors from several different angles, the police investigators took seriously the racist fairy tales about internecine murders and honor killings.

The three murderers of Mohammed Abu Khdeir are now in jail, after having received due legal process. The murdered boy’s family is destroyed, the story of his parents’ horrified grief etched in deep lines on their faces. Meanwhile, young Palestinian protestors in East Jerusalem are arrested and jailed every night. As we have seen over and over, they are beaten and dragged to jail without any due process. Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s mother tells Rosner what she knows to be true: that if an Arab living under Israeli sovereignty had abducted, beaten and burned alive a Jewish boy, he would have been shot to death by paramilitary police and his family’s house destroyed. And for Israeli Jews, that would have been justice.

But it seems that we’re quite used to seeing Palestinians denied basic civil rights, and their humanity as well.

More on the Abu Khdeir murder:
Police threaten to destroy memorial for slain Palestinian teen
After Abu Khdeir murder, an ugly collision of homophobia and racism
An open letter to the family of Mohammed Abu Khdeir

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