Friday, July 3

One year on, class of Palestinian teen burnt alive graduates without him

Kate Shuttleworth
Foreign Correspondent

JERUSALEM // Suha Abu Khdeir stands out like a sore thumb in the happy high school graduation portrait.
The students around her are draped in black gowns and caps and smiling proudly while gesturing with peace signs at the camera but the Palestinian mother in her early 40s is crying her eyes out.
The photograph is a poignant reminder of her lingering pain as she commemorates the first death anniversary of her son Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was murdered by Jewish vigilantes on July 2 last year.
“Just weeks ago I was invited to the graduation of Mohammed’s class, ” she told The National. “Everyone was happy but me.”
In another photo, the students are sitting in their seats but one chair in the front row is empty aside from a white satin covering and a large memorial photo of 16-year-old Mohammed.
“Mohammed really wanted to finish his studies, I wish I hadn’t gone to his graduation,” Suha said, explaining that the memory of her son’s violent death is still too raw.
During Ramadan last year, Mohammed was abducted outside a mosque in east Jerusalem and taken by car to a forest where he was beaten unconscious with a crowbar and burnt alive.
“I can’t believe it’s almost a year since my son Mohammed died. I still feel like it happened yesterday. Everything went so fast,” Suha said.
“When they kidnapped him they took my life, I have no meaning in my life now.”
In the past year, Suha and her husband Hussein have sat through 16 sessions in the Jerusalem district court where the accused — Yousef Ben David, 30, and two teenagers who cannot be named as they are underaged – face trial for the kidnap and murder of their son.
The couple, who have four other children, two boys and two girls, have dismissed the trial, saying that even if the trio are convicted and sentenced for the murder of their son, they do not believe they will be given the minimum sentence of life imprisonment.
“I don’t trust the Israeli court. I don’t believe they are going to give us our right. Even if they will sentence them, maybe they will release them after a few years,” said Suha.
The two teenagers told the court on June 3 that Ben David had pressured them into carrying out a hate crime in retaliation for the murder of three Israeli teenagers Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaer who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank weeks earlier.
The day before murdering Mohammed, Ben David attended the funeral of the three Israeli youth, as well as a rally of Jewish Israeli protesters in central Jerusalem calling for “death to Arabs”.
But Hussein said he blames the Israeli government for his son’s death. “Their incitement at the time encouraged these people.”
Following the killings of the three Israeli teenagers – and before Mohammed’s murder – prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had blamed Hamas for the deaths, saying that the group “must pay”.
Last year, Ben David, a resident of the West Bank settlement Adam, admitted to setting Mohammed alight in a police interview.
This year, however, he refused to testify in court and his legal team has argued that he is insane and unfit for trial.
“When my son was found in the forest, I was taken by the police for investigation before they arrested the accused,” Hussein said. At that point Ben David and the two teenagers on trial were being questioned by police.
“I told four Israeli police heads that they [their legal representation] will tell you that the accused are mentally sick. At the time they laughed at me. I predicted what would happen.”
Hussein said the family has no clear idea how long the trial will take.
“If the opposite happened and an Arab killed a Jew and burnt him alive, it would only take two sessions in the court and then they would be sentenced. The second day they would have already destroyed his house,” Hussein said.
The family is eligible to apply for compensation through the court for the murder of their son and could qualify for millions of shekels. However, the couple has refused to take any money.
“All the money in the whole world could not bring back my son,” said Suha.
They plan to file a case against the Israeli government in the International Criminal Court if the sentence is too light, with the support of European and Palestinian officials.
It is unclear whether the case would qualify for submission to the ICC given that it is a criminal case, and not a war crime committed by Israel.
When it came to the first breaking of the fast during this year’s Ramadan – the family’s first since Mohammed’s death – Suha said she couldn’t eat anything: “I just looked at [the food].”
Hussein agreed. “Ramadan doesn’t have the same taste for us now,” he said.

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