Israeli police said yesterday they expected to make additional arrests after one of the most brutal attacks in recent years against Jerusalem's Palestinian residents as activists warned of escalating violence between Jews and Arabs in the divided city.
The assault, which police labelled an attempted lynching, last Friday night of four Palestinian youngsters by at least 10 Jewish teenagers in downtown Jerusalem, has drawn national attention because dozens of bystanders, mostly Jewish, chose not to interfere. The seven suspects questioned by police include Jewish youths as young as 13 and two 15-year-old girls.
Several Palestinians who witnessed the violence said there were shouts of "Death to the Arabs" from the Jewish youths.
The incident, in which one of the Palestinian boys was beaten until he became unconscious, highlighted the hostility and physical aggression that Palestinians living in the poorer, mostly-Arab east Jerusalem often face when venturing into the wealthier, Jewish-dominated western part of the city.
"This violent event will not be the last one," warned Yudith Oppenheimer, the executive director of Ir Amim, an Israeli activist group that advocates more equality between Jerusalem's Arabs and Jews. "The image of a united Jerusalem is a fraud. Jewish youths are raised to believe that east Jerusalem's Palestinians are not part of the city."
The attack also drew wide media coverage in Israel because it was the latest in a spate of assaults against Palestinians.
On Thursday, just hours before the attack in Jerusalem, six Palestinians, including four-year-old twins, riding in a taxi near the Jewish settlement of Bat Ayin in the West Bank were injured when a firebomb was thrown at their vehicle.
Yesterday, the Israeli military said that a gate to a Palestinian home near the West Bank city of Nablus was set ablaze overnight in an attack Israeli media attributed to Jewish extremists.
Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday issued a statement describing the attack as a combination of "racism and violence" and added that "the entire state and all of its leaders are coming out against such phenomena".
Nevertheless, even officials from the right wing lambasted the attack as driven by racism.
Yesterday, Gideon Saar, Israel's education minister, said at a conference in Jerusalem: "This is a very serious event, both in terms of violence and racism. The high number of teenagers who took part in the incident adds to that concern." Mr Saar said the attack will be discussed in classrooms in the upcoming year.
Moshe Yaalon, a vice prime minister and a member of Mr Netanyahu's right-wing ruling Likud party, called the Jerusalem beating and the firebomb attack "terrorist acts".
Last week, the US state department included for the first time violence by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in its list of "terrorist incidents". Settler violence against Palestinians and their property, mosques and farmland has risen by almost 150 per cent since 2009, according to United Nations data.
During the attack in Jerusalem that took place in Zion Square, as many as 10 Jewish youths beat 17-year-old Jamal Julani, from east Jerusalem, until he became unconscious. Paramedics who arrived at the scene found Mr Julani unresponsive and with no pulse but treated him and he later regained consciousness at a Jerusalem hospital.
Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said that five suspects have been arrested and another two were questioned late on Sunday. Their ages ranged from 13 to 19 and none had a previous criminal record.
Mr Rosenfeld said the attack was prompted after one of the teenage girls "fuelled the flames" by telling the others she had been the victim of sexual assault by an Arab man.
"We have set up a special investigative team, are continuing the questioning and expecting to make more arrests throughout the day," Mr Rosenfeld said.
Some Israelis who had witnessed the attack have expressed their horror online. Batya Houri-Yafin, a Jerusalemite Jew who volunteers with troubled youths, wrote on Facebook just hours after the incident that she saw "tens of youths trying to beat to death three Arab youths walking quietly on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall".
She added: "Children aged 15 to 18 are killing a boy their age with their own hands … this picture isn't budging away from my eyes, as is the question of what happened to us and to our children and if we can still change it."
In a demonstration of the hostility that had motivated the Jewish youths to attack, a 15-year-old boy who had been arrested shouted to reporters as he was taken into a Jerusalem court on Monday that Mr Julani "cursed my mother … he got the kick he deserved, not more … as far as I am concerned, he can die".