Jerusalem: Of the six Israelis held over the abduction and killing of a Palestinian teenager last week, three have confessed to the murder, a source close to the investigation says.
"Three out of six suspects in custody have confessed to the murder and burning of Mohammed Abu Khder, and performed a re-enactment of the crime" in front of officers, the source said on Monday, requesting anonymity.
Israel arrested six Jewish extremists on Sunday in connection with the killing of 16-year-old Abu Khder on July 2, in a gruesome attack that triggered days of clashes in annexed east Jerusalem and Arab Israeli towns.
The attack is believed to have been in revenge for the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank last month, and the twin attacks have ratcheted up tensions throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Authorities have placed a gag order on most aspects of the investigation into Abu Khder's murder.
But Honenu, a legal organisation which defends right-wing Jewish extremists, said it was representing six people - three of them minors - whose remand was extended by the Petah Tikva magistrates court, just outside Tel Aviv, on Sunday.
Police spokesmen Micky Rosenfeld said there was a "strong possibility" that the motive for the killing of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khedair was "nationalistic", indicating that it was a revenge attack by right-wing extremists for the recent kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank.
Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, who also held US citizenship, were kidnapped on June 12 as they hitched a ride in the West Bank on the way home for the weekend from the yeshivas where they studied. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave in a field near Hebron 18 days later. Israeli officials said it appeared that they had been fatally shot soon after getting into the car.
The killing of the three Israeli teenagers and the subsequent killing of Mohammed have raised the spectre of the broader, Israel-Palestinian conflict descending into a spiral of personal vendetta and bloodletting.
Several East Jerusalem neighbourhoods have erupted in outrage over the killing of Mohammed, with youths clashing with Israeli security forces for several days. The unrest spread over the weekend to some other towns in northern Israel, and tensions remained high along the border with Gaza in the south. Israel braced for more violence with the announcement of the arrests on Sunday.
Tensions were also high along the Gaza border, where Israel killed two Palestinian militants and wounded a third in one of about a dozen air strikes in response to rocket fire at southern Israeli towns. Hospital officials confirmed the fatalities, and the Israeli military confirmed it had bombed central Gaza.
Hamas spokeman Sami Abu Zuhri accused Israel of committing a "grave escalation" in violence and threatened to retaliate, saying Israel would "pay the price".
But Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signalled that broader Israeli action was not imminent.
Earlier, Mr Netanyahu called for calm: "Experience proves that at such times we must act responsibly and with equanimity, not hastily," he added.
Eran Schwartz, a spokesman for the legal aid organisation Honenu, said the six Israeli suspects ranged in age from 16 to 25 and came from Jerusalem neighbourhoods as well as West Bank settlements.
They were arrested early on Sunday by police wearing civilian clothes who burst into their homes and apprehended them using stun guns, Mr Schwartz said.
Honenu, which Mr Schwartz said will help represent the suspects, describes itself on its website as an organisation that defends "soldiers and civilians who find themselves in legal entanglements due to defending themselves against Arab aggression, or due to their love for Israel".
Some Israelis compared the arrests to 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 US-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 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 a nationalist Israeli fringe that has desecrated mosques and destroyed Palestinian property. Now, with the killing of Mohammed, Professor Avineri said, "a line has been crossed".
A strict gag order was in place around the case, but Israeli media said a court had ordered the suspects remanded into custody for eight days.
Israel's Shin Bet security agency said the suspects were being questioned at one of its installations. Mr Rosenfeld said the police and security services were trying to determine whether the suspects had also tried to kidnap another Palestinian child, eight-year-old Mousa Zaloum, from the same area of East Jerusalem a day before Mohammed was abducted.
Mohammed's body was discovered on Wednesday, about an hour after he was snatched and forced into a car in the Shuafat neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem.
On Saturday, the Palestinian attorney-general said that an autopsy had found soot in Mohammed's lungs, suggesting that he was beaten and burned while he was still alive.
The announcement of the arrests after days of uncertainty about the circumstances of the killing rocked Israel. Yaakov Peri, an Israeli minister and a former chief of the Shin Bet, told reporters that if the perpetrators proved to be Israeli Jews, the killing should be treated by the police as "a terror act".
Mohammed's relatives, who were convinced from the outset that the killers were Israelis, felt no immediate comfort or satisfaction.
"I feel pain," Mohammed's father, Hussein Abu Khedair, said as he sat in a tent surrounded by mourners outside the family home in Shuafat. "There is no justice in Israel."
Yishai Fraenkel, uncle of slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel, said in an interview that his family had received many condolence calls from Palestinians in recent days. On Sunday he spoke by phone to Hussein Abu Khedair and extended the Fraenkel family's sorrow at the death of his son.
"I told him that all murderers need to be caught and punished for these crimes," Mr Fraenkel said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he sent a message to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging the formation of an international investigation committee into "terror crimes conducted against our people, including the burning alive of Mohammed Abu Khedair".
Several Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem and some Muslim towns in northern Israel erupted into violence with scenes reminiscent of the outbreak of the Palestinian uprisings in 1987 and 2000.
As youths clashed with security forces in Shuafat on Thursday, Tariq Abu Khedair, 15, a cousin of Mohammed visiting from Tampa, Florida, for summer vacation, was caught on an amateur video being savagely beaten by Israeli border police officers. The video footage was spread on worldwide Saturday, fanning local and international outrage.
The Israeli Justice Ministry opened an investigation into the accusations of police brutality. On Sunday, Tariq, who is accused of throwing stones at police officers, was released on bail but will be under house arrest in Shuafat.
Israel has blamed Hamas, the Islamist militant group that dominates Gaza, for the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teenagers and carried out a broad military crackdown on the group's infrastructure in the West Bank.
New York Times, Reuters, Washington Post, AFP