“We never dreamed that it would end in murder,” one of the Jewish defendants in the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem last year said on Wednesday morning, as he began giving testimony in front of the Jerusalem District Court.
Abu Khdeir, 16, was abducted in the early hours of July 2, 2014 from the Jerusalem Arab neighborhood of Shuafat, close to his home. He was driven to the Jerusalem Forest, where he was beaten and burned alive by his kidnappers. The state has officially recognized him as a victim of terror.
Three Israeli Jews are standing trial for the murder – Yosef Haim Ben-David, an adult, and two minors, both of whom have blamed Ben-David for planning the murder of Abu Khdeir and exerting heavy pressure on them to participate.
Wednesday's testimony was given by one of the minors. Ben-David is pleading insanity and, according to his attorney, is not fit to take the stand.
The bereaved father, Hussein Abu Khdeir, was present in the courtroom and shouted at the witness during his testimony.
In articulate Hebrew, the defendant described his background and told of how he came to be involved in the “terrible” deed. He said he was a yeshiva student and never had much interest in politics. Ben-David, he said, was “like a father” to him during an eight-month-long rift with his father.
He described the events that led up to the murder as stemming from a desire to take revenge for the murder of three Jewish teenagers, who were kidnapped from the Gush Etzion junction in the West Bank and whose bodies were discovered the day before Abu Khdeir’s murder.
“I felt very sad," the defendant said, describing his reaction to the murder of the Jewish youths. "I called Yosef to ask if it was true and he said 'yes.' He picked me up from the yeshiva at 11 A.M. He showed up with fire in his eyes, all fired up and angry."
"He said we had to do something to avenge the murder of the boys," the defendant continued. "He said he’d seen pictures of the mangled bodies. He said we had to take revenge on the Arabs.”
The defendant said that when he asked Ben-David what he had in mind, he was told, "Something like a 'price tag' attack; some act of revenge so there won’t be any more terror attacks like these It was very hard for me to tell him 'no.'”
In response to a question from his attorney regarding whether the three had planned to commit murder, the defendant said: "Not at all. We never dreamed that was what would happen. [Ben-David] said, 'when we're driving, you get out and shove someone into the car. We'll hit him a bit and then leave him.' It wasn't clear what was going to happen."
He related that they drank energy drinks and even took pills that Ben-David gave them, saying that it would "calm us down."
The three drove through the streets of East Jerusalem for hours, looking for a possible victim. According to his testimony, the two younger defendants alighted for the car at least 10 times, attempting to trap and kidnap a youth, but they returned to the car empty-handed each time, to Ben-David's dismay.
"We tried to tell him the entire night that it wouldn't work," he said. "We wanted him to get tired of it. In Wadi Joz, he wanted us to capture some children, but my heart ached for them. What had they done?'
The defendant said that he had grown tired during the course of the night. "At one point I fell asleep. I had no strength. I awoke against my will and we continued driving for another half-hour or so. Then we saw a youth and he said, 'This looks good.'"
The defendant told how the two minors had alighted from the car and spoken with the youth. "We asked him for directions to Tel Aviv. Even when we stood opposite him, we didn't think that anything would come of it. But then [the third defendant] hit him and I understood that there was no way back. It's a very frightening place.
"I was entirely exhausted and frustrated from the whole evening. I was under terrible pressure, without thinking, without knowing what we were doing. Like a robot. It was clear to me that [Ben-David] would stop at some point; that we would throw the guy out and then escape. I didn't think he'd have the guts to drive to the forest and beat him there. It seemed so frightening. I thought he'd let him out and we'd get away."
"Throughout the journey [the third defendant] and I held the youth," he said. "When we got to the forest, the youth seemed to wake up to what was happening and he tried to get out. Yosef Haim asked where we had a crowbar. Half his body was outside the car Yosef Haim hit his head twice. Two very hard blows. There was a noise and two red wounds. I thought he was dead."
The defendant added that Ben-David asked him to remove Abu Khdeir from the car. "I said to him, 'Enough, already. We've done everything the whole night and you nothing. All you've done is sit behind the wheel. I understood that the meaning of what we had done was a lot worse than what I had thought.
"Then he said that in order for us not to be identified, we needed to pour petrol on him. To get rid of the DNA. There were bottles of petrol in the car. We took the bottles, the two of us, and began pouring it on his legs. Then I got back in the car. I thought that was it. That we weren't going to burn him.
"Suddenly I saw a huge fire and I understood what was happening. I didn’t see when Yosef set him alight. But according to what was said, he was the one who set him alight."
"What did you think would happen when you poured the petrol?" asked the judge. You left the car between 10 and 15 times; why didn't you put an end to it the second time? Or the third time? Everything was under duress? I don't understand it."
The defendant responded: "In my soul I felt connected to [Ben-David.] I felt that I owed him. I so much wanted to be close to him that I wasn't able to say 'no' to him."
The prosecutor also took issue with the defendant's version of events.
"You wanted to take revenge on the first day as well as the second," he said to the defendant. "After the first day you were very happy with what you did, the day before the murder."
The prosecutor showed the court a soundless video in which the three re-enacted what they had done. There are moments in which they are seen smiling as they recounted the blows they had given Abu Khdeir.
"I don't remember the conversation, but it's clear to me that I wasn't excited by what had happened," the defendant responded. "I wasn't happy and I wasn't excited."
The prosecutor also took issue with the defendant's claim that he didn't come from a political family and had never participated in political activities. "The police say that you hate Arabs," he said. "Much of what you have said today differs from your statements to the police."
Defendant: "We didn't think of killing anyone."
Prosecutor: "When the Shin Bet initially questioned you, you denied everything. You didn't tell the truth."
Defendant: "At first I denied and later I admitted. I never thought of killing Arabs."
Abu Khdeir's father shouted "liar" at the defendant during the course of the testimony. After leaving the court he said: "It's all theater here. Our hearts have been burned. We are burned at every hearing. They burned our son and now they burn us. It's not enough that they burned the boy; they also have to lie."
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