Israel arrested six Jewish suspects Sunday in the grisly slaying of a Palestinian teenager who was abducted and burned to death last week, marking a breakthrough in a case that has touched off violent protests in Arab sections of Jerusalem and northern Israel.
In a statement, Israeli police and the Shin Bet security agency said the suspects were being interrogated.
While the statement did not say how many were taken into custody, an official speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation was still going on said it was six.
In a case that has gripped the country’s attention, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, 16, was abducted outside his home in east Jerusalem early Wednesday, and his charred remains were found in a Jerusalem forest shortly afterward.
Palestinians immediately accused Jewish extremists of killing Abu Khdeir to avenge the killings of three Israeli teens who were kidnapped while hitchhiking. Israel has blamed the slayings on the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Israeli officials said Sunday they believe Abu Khdeir’s killers acted out of “nationalistic” motives.
The official described the suspects as young males, including several minors, and said they came from Jerusalem, the nearby city of Beit Shemesh, and Adam, a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem.
He said police had located a car used by the suspects, and that security camera footage said to show parts of the abduction did not help police. During the investigation, however, police learned of an attempted kidnapping the previous day of a young child in the same east Jerusalem neighborhood and concluded the cases were linked.
Abu Khdeir’s death triggered violence in his east Jerusalem neighborhood, as angry crowds destroyed train stations, clashed with police and littered roads with stones and other debris. The unrest spread to sections of northern Israel over the weekend.
Abu Khdeir’s family said the arrests brought them little joy.
“I don’t have any peace in my heart, even if they captured who they say killed my son,” said his mother, Suha. “They’re only going to ask them questions and then release them. What’s the point?”
She added: “They need to treat them the way they treat us. They need to demolish their homes and round them up, the way they do it to our children.”
Israeli hard-liners, often motivated by religious zeal, are widely believed to be behind a wave of vandalism attacks in Israel and the West Bank on mosques, churches, Palestinian farmland and even Israeli military property. Murky groups call these attacks the “price tag” for what they consider to be government policies that unfairly favor Palestinians.
However, vigilante killings are extremely rare. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American-born settler, entered a Muslim prayer hall in the West Bank city of Hebron and gunned down 29 worshippers before being killed. The following year, a Jewish ultranationalist assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to derail his peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Shortly after the arrests were announced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the killing of Abu Khdeir and appealed for calm.
“We will not allow extremists, it doesn’t matter from which side, to inflame the region and cause bloodshed,” he said. While promising to prosecute the perpetrators “to the full extent of the law,” he also accused Palestinian leaders of tolerating incitement.
“Murder is murder, incitement is incitement and we will respond aggressively to both,” Netanyahu said.
About 50 people were arrested in several days of demonstrations following Abu Khdeir’s death, and 15 police officers and two civilians were injured, authorities said.
A 15-year-old Palestinian-American boy was also seriously hurt in clashes with Israeli security forces in east Jerusalem. On Sunday, the boy, Tariq Abu Khdeir, was sentenced to nine days of home detention.
As Tariq returned to his family, he was crying and appeared badly bruised, with both eyes and his mouth swollen. “I feel better. I am excited to be back home,” he said.
Amateur video of what Tariq’s father, Salah, said was the beating aired on television, and he said he could recognize his son from his clothing.
The U.S. State Department said it was “profoundly troubled” by reports of the beating and demanded an investigation. Israel’s Justice Ministry launched an investigation.
The situation along Israel’s southern border with the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, remained tense. Gaza militants have stepped up rocket fire in recent weeks, drawing Israeli airstrikes.
By late Sunday afternoon, militants had fired more than 15 rockets and mortars into Israel, the military said. Overnight, Israel had carried out airstrikes on 10 sites in Gaza. No injuries were immediately reported.