Haifa court - Hagai Frid - February 2012
Two of the suspects in Friday’s beating of two off-duty soldiers appearing in court in Haifa yesterday. Photo by Hagai Frid
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The Haifa Magistrate's Court yesterday extended the remand of six Arab Israelis suspected of beating up two off-duty soldiers on Friday night near Rambam Medical Center. In making the decision to keep them in custody, the judge compared the incident to the October 2000 lynching of two soldiers in Ramallah.

The motive for the attack, however, remained unclear. While the victims claim they were attacked for "nationalist" reasons, police are investigating whether the suspects were seeking vengeance against individuals who had harassed them earlier, and mistook the soldiers for their assailants.

The suspects' attorneys deny that their clients were involved in any altercation at all.

Another person was arrested yesterday in the case, bringing the number of suspects to seven. Though police had asked for a 12-day remand, the court only agreed to four - partly because four of the suspects are minors.

The suspects' families and attorneys say that before the attack, which happened very late Friday night, there had been another incident.

The father of one of the younger suspects said that at his home in Bat Galim, near Rambam, some 20 youths had gathered for a barbecue, when several Jewish youths happened by and asked if they could join in. When his son and his friends did not let them in, the father said, the Jewish youths threw stones and vandalized the house.

One of the defense attorneys, Hamudi Masri, said the Arab youths then called the police, but no patrol car arrived on the scene.

As for the two victims in the later incident - who are soldiers but were not in uniform - they claim they were en route to Rambam because one of them suddenly felt ill. As they approached the hospital, a vehicle carrying at least 10 Arabs approached. When the passengers asked if they were Jewish and the two answered yes, the Arabs allegedly got out of the car and attacked them with clubs and stones.

Police suspect the attackers mistook the two soldiers for two of the youths who had earlier thrown stones at the house.

Judge Zaid Falah, in remanding the youths, used sharp language in his ruling, writing that "the event reminds one of the lynch committed on the soldiers in Ramallah. To our great sorrow, those soldiers lost their lives there. Fortunately, [in this case] security guards from Rambam arrived at the scene; if that hadn't happened, we don't want to think what the results might have been."

Following the hearing, Masri said, "The coverage of this incident has been totally out of proportion. Whoever did it should be punished severely. I don't know anyone and certainly no judge in the State of Israel who would fail to condemn a nationalist attack. [But] the comparison the judge made to the lynch in Ramallah pained me and many others who are here. I don't know a single person who supports slaughtering soldiers."

Masri added: "There's been a public conviction here, which I am convinced will not turn into a criminal conviction."

The father of one of the soldiers and an uncle of the second one also attended the hearing. The uncle, who is a superintendent in the Israel Police, insisted it had been a nationalist attack.

"The court called it a serious incident with a nationalist background, and that's how it should be viewed," said the uncle. "They tried to cast it differently but it was a random event and my nephew was caught simply because he is Jewish ... this was not a quarrel."