Illegal Israeli settlers have called for the death of a Palestinian who was wrongly accused of raping a seven-year-old Israeli girl, spraying graffiti on walls in his West Bank village and vandalising cars.
The graffiti was discovered yesterday in Deir Qadis, a Palestinian village northwest of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. The village is home to Mahmoud Katusa, a 46-year-old Palestinian who was wrongly accused of raping a young Israeli girl and released last month after charges against him were dropped.
Written in Hebrew, the graffiti read "the death penalty is necessary for Mahmoud Qadusa," while several cars parked in the village were also vandalised, the Times of Israel reported.
The Israeli daily noted that this is not the first such incident, pointing to an attack on the nearby village of Sinjil where cars were found with their tyres slashed and graffiti spray-painted on the walls read: "we give them jobs and they rape."
The Israel Police said it has opened an investigation into the apparent hate crime. However, Israeli settlers are rarely arrested for anti-Palestinian incitement and violence; data from Israeli human rights organisation Yesh Din shows that only three per cent of investigations into ideologically-motivated crimes against Palestinians have resulted in a conviction.
The case against Katusa came to light last month when he was charged with the kidnap and rape of a seven-year-old Israeli girl from a West Bank settlement. Though the girl's name and the exact location of the settlement were placed under an Israeli court gag order, the attack was presumed to have taken place in Modi'in Ilit, an ultra-Orthodox settlement near Israel's Separation Wall, not far from Deir Qadis.
Katusa had reportedly worked at the girl's school as a maintenance worker, with the indictment against him charging that he won her trust by engaging her in conversation and giving her sweets over a prolonged period of time. The indictment claimed that Katusa then dragged the Israeli girl to a nearby apartment where he was working and, with the help of Palestinian friends who held her down, raped the child.
The case caused a political storm in Israel, with right-wing politicians such as former Defence Minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, hard-line Likud Knesset Member (MK) Gilad Erdan, and newly-appointed Minister of Transport, Bezalel Smotrich, calling for the attack to be treated as terrorism and for Katusa to be executed.
Whether these politicians' rhetoric contributed to yesterday's attack on Deir Qadis is difficult to ascertain, but it is possible their expression of such views has lent legitimisation to the settlers' actions. Smotrich in particular has strong links with Israel's illegal settlers, with Yesh Din in December accusing him of inciting violence against Palestinians after he called on settlers to attack Palestinian vehicles during a week of heightened West Bank tensions.
Quickly after Katusa was charged in connection with the girl's rape, holes began to appear in the police investigation. Sources close to the probe told Israeli daily Haaretz that the police had failed to send potentially-crucial evidence to the forensics department for examination and changed their account of the attack after Katusa's alibi was confirmed, raising questions about the validity of the indictment.
Although originally the police claimed that Katusa raped the girl in his home in Deir Qadis on a specified date and time, Katusa told the investigation he was working on an apartment in the settlement at that time. When an alibi confirmed this, the police altered their claim about where the rape took place, saying it had occurred in an apartment a few hundred metres from the girl's school.
In light of these discrepancies, Israel Police re-opened the case against Katusa, eventually dropping the charges against him. A joint statement by the police and Israel's military prosecution stated that though there was evidence to show the girl was sexually assaulted, officials involved in the investigation were "all of the opinion that there isn't enough evidence to file charges against Qatusa".
Speaking upon his release, Katusa stressed his innocence, saying "it felt like a movie. I shouted, but nobody listened to me. From the very beginning I've been telling the police I'm not the person they are looking for."
"I'm an innocent man, and even if the entire world is against me I know my hands are clean," he said, adding: "I have nothing against the child or her family. I was taught Arabs and Jews are treated the same [now] my reputation is tarnished and my family is devastated."
Katusa's lawyer, Nashef Darwish, told Israel's Army Radio that the incident "says a lot about the way the [Israeli] judiciary handles anything that has to do with Palestinians on the other side of the Green Line."