JERUSALEM – Two vicious attacks on Palestinians, presumed to be the work of Jews, have some Israelis worried that their society is increasingly tolerant of hate crimes.
Over the weekend, unknown assailants firebombed a Palestinian taxi in the West Bank. Hours later, a mob of Jewish teens beat a 17-year-old Palestinian unconscious in downtown Jerusalem.
Israeli leaders have condemned the violence. On Tuesday, President Shimon Peres said he was "mortified" by the "intolerable" attack on the teen.
Others are cautioning against making broad indictments of Israeli society, arguing that incidents of violence and intolerance are not widespread, despite constant tensions from the longstanding conflict between Arabs and Jews.
One suspect in the attack on the Arab teen hinted at the corrosive effect of that conflict when he declared outside court on Monday, "He could die for all I care — he's an Arab."
The suspect was among seven people, aged 13 to 19, who have been arrested in connection with the assault on 17-year-old Jamal Julani. Bystanders watched as he was kicked and beaten. He was in critical condition when he was brought into a Jerusalem hospital early Friday. He has since regained consciousness but remains hospitalized, a spokeswoman for Hadassah Medical Center said Tuesday.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the violence was not the act of Jewish extremists, but "just kids" egged on by a Jewish girl who claimed to have been involved in an unspecified "sexual incident" with an Arab, an account her lawyer denied.
Rosenfeld said no arrests have been made in Thursday's firebombing of the Palestinian taxi, which wounded the six people inside. One remained in intensive care on Tuesday, and four others also remained hospitalized, Hadassah spokeswoman Etti Dvir said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to bring the people responsible for the firebombing to justice and relayed that message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
"We will not tolerate racism, and we will not tolerate the combination of racism and violence," he said in a statement Tuesday. "This is something we just cannot accept, not as Jews, not as Israelis."
Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon described the two weekend attacks as "terrorist acts" that "run contrary to Jewish ethics and values."
Critics charge that authorities are lax in pursuing Jews suspected of attacking Palestinians, noting few indictments or convictions in dozens of cases of assaults on Palestinians and their property every year.
They also accuse some of Israel's political and spiritual leaders of creating a toxic atmosphere by condoning — and even encouraging — violence against Arabs.
"Even the denunciation of the prime minister and other public figures can't obscure the fact that this (attack on the Arab teen) has a deep-seated political and social context," the Haaretz newspaper editorialized on Tuesday.
Social critics note that the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has bred hatred, dehumanization and violence on both sides. Palestinian attacks on Israeli vehicles in the West Bank are frequent, and many Palestinians consider them legitimate forms of resistance against Israeli occupation.
The Israeli military counted 196 Palestinian firebomb attacks and six shooting incidents in the first half of 2012, but it did not provide information on casualties.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the incidence of violence among Israelis is not exceptional in the world context.
"There are pockets within Israeli society, particularly among young teenagers, where there is a history of violence, intolerance, across the board. It extends to Jewish groups in Israel as much as it does to Palestinians," he said. "The evidence clearly shows that Israel is not any more tolerant than the United States or Europe, and there is a lot of stress in this society."