PARIS – Six Jewish vigilantes were jailed in Paris on Friday over a “savage gang attack” targeting attendees at a fundraising event for Gaza in 2009.
The defendants used iron bars, baseball bats and bike chains in the onslaught, in which they deliberately targeted anybody who looked like a Muslim.
Among their victims was a 22-year-old singer who suffered a “lynching” by the 20-strong mob who chanted “Death to Arabs” and “Long live Israel!”
All were leading members of the Jewish Defence League (JDL), a notorious vigilante group that is outlawed in both America and Israel because of its links with terrorism.
Despite this, the JDL is allowed to demonstrate openly in France, and its yellow and black clenched fist flags are regularly seen at events across the country.
A court in the French capital heard how all six had beaten up Hatem Essabbak and Mustapha Belkhir outside a Paris theatre in April 2009.
The case is considered one of the most sensitive in recent legal history, because of the way it illustrates how the Israel-Palestine conflict has been exported to the streets of major French cities.
No less than five examining judges were involved in the Paris enquiry, with four resigning one after the other because of the intense pressure.
The six men found guilty of carrying out aggravated violent assaults were Jason Tibi, Rudy Lalou, Azar Cohen, Maxime Schaffier, Yoia Bensimou, and Yoni Sulman.
Other JDL gang members are said to have fled to Israel to avoid prosecution, while Tibi has admitted serving in the Israeli army while waiting for his case to come to court. At least two of those convicted today have since fled to Israel.
A damning verdict reads: “The facts of this case illustrate how the violence was aggravated by victims being targeted because of their race and religion.”
Dominique Cochain, Essabbak’s barrister, said: “Normally, this type of case is dealt with within three months. It has to be said that this is a very sensitive issue.”
Essabbak, a 22-year-old singer at the time, was with his girlfriend outside the Adyar Theatre, close to the Eiffel Tower, on Sunday 12 April, 2009.
Both were taking part in Our Talents for Gaza – a showbiz event raising money for the surviving families of more than 1,400 Palestinians, including 400 children, killed by Israeli forces during an offensive a few weeks before.
Essabbak was surrounded by the JDL men who used iron bars, bats, bike chains, crash helmets and fists in the “unprovoked lynching,” the court heard.
Essabbak said: “I was repeatedly hit in the face, around the head, and on both legs. I then fell to the ground, and was hit again around the head. They carried on until they saw I wasn’t moving. My life stopped on 12 April, 2009.”
Mustapha Belkhir went to help Essabbak and was also badly beaten up. Both men ended up in hospital.
Witnesses heard the attackers shouting: “Have this, it’s for Gaza, you dirty Arab,” and “Us Jews are going to f*** you, you dirty race.”
Most of the JDL members had their faces covered, but their mobile phones were later traced to the scene of the attack.
Tibi – who was described in court as the leader of the group – at first denied any knowledge of the attacks, but admitted taking part when confronted with evidence.
Tibi and and Sulman received two-year sentences, while the others were handed sentences of between nine months and a year.
Beyond the theatre attack, 27-year-old Tibi has a previous prison conviction for smashing up a Palestinian book shop in Paris, and has been filmed fighting in Marseille.
Cochain told the court: “The evidence is that Mr Tibi has not changed. Videos on Google show that in 2011 he disrupted a pro-Palestine meeting in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, accompanied by JDL members, and wanted to stop debate.
“They were shouting slogans like ‘F*** Palestine’. He was also in Marseille in June 2011 to protest against the Gaza flotilla taking supplies to the blockaded Palestinian territory. His face was covered in blood and he was saying ‘I’m here to protest’, ‘Israel will live, Israel will vanquish.’”
The JDL is regularly involved in attacks on pro-Palestine activists, politicians, journalists and other perceived enemies across France.
There have been numerous calls to ban the JDL in France, with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve condemning their behaviour as “excessive”.