Jerusalem police announced Wednesday that they have released to house arrest a group of minors suspected of belonging to a gang that has been carrying out “price tag” attacks in the city.
The recent arrests of the teen boys, aged 13-18, was announced on Sunday after a gag order on the case was lifted. The suspects are students at several yeshivas and are suspected of committing the attacks while they were home during breaks from school.
Four of the suspects, the youngest, were released on Sunday, and the other 10 were let go on Wednesday, police said, adding that the case is now with the city attorney’s office, Army Radio reported.
During questioning the suspects admitted they acted out of “hatred for Arabs and to avenge attacks committed against Jews,” police said. The arrest announcement came amid a string of ongoing attacks in east Jerusalem that have seen vehicles vandalized and anti-Arab graffiti scrawled on walls, including the term “price tag,” acts of vandalism usually performed against Arab property and typically carried out by Jewish nationalists in retribution for government moves against the settler community.
The investigation began last week after residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood reported to police that their cars had been vandalized. Police and volunteers caught two of the perpetrators in the act and brought them in for questioning, after which they arrested more suspects. They allegedly damaged eight cars belonging to Arabs near the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik.
According to police, the teens admitted to attacking Arab drivers on Highway 1, throwing stones at Egged buses after identifying that the driver and riders were Arabs, setting fire to cars in Sheikh Jarrah, slashing tires of cars belonging to Arabs and throwing stones at Arab pedestrians.
“They said under questioning that the attacks and stone-throwing were carried out after they set up lookouts on various streets to identify Arab pedestrians or drivers (both buses and cars). They would signal to their friends who then threw stones at them or opened vehicle doors, spat at or attacked the drivers,” police said in a statement.
So far, police have connected the suspects to 20 incidents and suspect there could be more.
“They acted in recent months as an organized gang whose goal was to hurt the Arabs,” Niv Piamenta, head of the police’s Nationalistic Crime Unit said, according to the Ynet news website. “Their nationalistic motives are noted during interrogation, and they admitted that in recent months, they set fire to vehicles of an Arab resident of Sheikh Jarrah and in many cases stoned Arab pedestrians, buses and vehicles of Arabs at the risk of vehicle occupants.”
Itamar Ben Gvir, a lawyer for one of the suspects and a far right-wing politician and activist, expressed skepticism about the police investigation, according to Ynet.
“The police are too motivated,” he said. “They tried to extend [my client's] detention several more days, but the court denied them. I am not sure the evidence will be admissible in court. It concerns the investigation of 16-year-old boys.”
Parents of several of the suspects claimed that their children were innocent.
“My heart aches,” one of the mother’s said. “He just came home on Tuesday, and then they arrested him. “He’s a good boy who was just hanging around Shimon Hatzadik Street with this group. When they asked in the investigation who else was there, the other boys gave [my son's] name.”
“I want them to show me proof that my son did this,” one father said at the beginning of the hearing. “If they show me a picture, I’ll kick him out of the house, but he didn’t do anything. It is not wise to investigate children until they confess.”
The past few weeks have seen an uptick in suspected price tag incidents in Jerusalem.
On September 29, four Jewish yeshiva students, aged 17-26, were caught by police after they reportedly used large rocks to smash at least 15 tombstones in the Greek-Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion.
September 22, five other cars in Sheikh Jarrah had their tires slashed and the words “price tag” and “Jewish blood is not cheap” were spray-painted on nearby walls.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced in July that planning and carrying out price tag attacks will be defined as “illegal organizing,” giving law enforcement the same tools to fight them as they do Islamic terror groups.
Former Shin Bet security agency director Carmi Gillon warned in early September that if current peace talks with the Palestinians make progress, “the next Yigal Amir [the assassin of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin] will emerge from among the people who stand behind price tag attacks.”