By Victor Rosenthal
On the night of 31 July 2015, someone firebombed two homes in the Palestinian village of Duma, in the northern part of Judea, about 55 km. west of Tel Aviv. One of the buildings was empty, but sleeping in the other were Saed and Riham Dawabshe, and their children Ali (18 months) and Ahmad (5). Ali died in the fire, and the parents succumbed to their injuries a short time later. Ahmad was carried out by his father or grandfather and survived, though he was severely burned.
Almost immediately, government officials, including President Ruben Rivlin, let it be known that the attack was likely “Jewish terrorism” and the culprits would be found among “extremist settlers,” specifically the “hilltop youth,” religious teenagers and young adults who lived independently of their parents in Judea and Samaria, and who wanted to replace the democratic state with one governed by Jewish law. The nation was gripped by a paroxysm of guilt and self-flagellation over the allegation that Jews had done such an awful thing, although there were as yet no suspects. This happened at about the same time a religious fanatic stabbed several people, one fatally, at a gay pride parade in Jerusalem, and left-wing elements connected the events and blamed “settlers,” religious Jews, and PM Netanyahu for the “outbreak of Jewish terrorism.”
The Shabak (Internal Security Service) arrested several suspects in early August. They were held in administrative detention – that is, without being charged – and subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism for torture that may or may not fall short of the acts that are prohibited by customary international law.
Even at this point, there were good reasons to wonder if the official account that Jewish extremists had done it fit the evidence. On August 21, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said he was “confident” that the murderers were Jewish extremists, and that the exceptional measures taken against the suspects were justified. But there was a very good alternative explanation, which was that the firebombs were thrown by Arabs involved in an ongoing feud with the Dawabshe family. There were several other suspicious fires in property owned by the Dawabshes before and after the murderous attack. And the Shabak was unable to provide a sensible explanation (Hebrew link) for why this line of investigation hadn’t been pursued.
By December the Shabak had not succeeded in getting a confession out of the various suspects in its custody, and the best that Ya’alon could do was say that their actions (presumably “price-tag” vandalism of Arab property) “led to [??????], among others, the murder of three innocent Palestinians, and as a result, contributed to instability in the region, and worsened the security situation.” But “led to” is not the same as “committed.” Although there was still no proof that Jews were responsible for this atrocity, it became part of the accepted narrative in almost all segments of Israeli society.
In January 2016, one of the initial suspects was released (ultimately, they all would be), and two additional suspects arrested: Amiram ben Uliel (21), and an additional minor. Ben Uliel was charged with murder – the first time anyone had been charged in connection with the crime. He too was subjected to “enhanced interrogation,” and by 2018 he produced a “confession” and “reenactment of the crime.” While the other (minor) suspect also “confessed,” he was alleged only to have participated in the planning of the crime and was not accused of being present at the scene. Ben Uliel was accused of having perpetrated the firebombing by himself. Some confessions were thrown out after attorneys argued successfully that they were obtained by torture, but some of ben Uliel’s statements, plus the reenactment, were allowed to stand.
On 18 May 2020, Amiram ben Uliel was convicted by a three-judge panel (there is no jury trial in Israel) of murder, attempted murder, arson and “conspiracy to commit a crime motivated by racism.” His wife testified that he was at home with her all night, but the judges did not believe her. The prosecution asked for three life sentences, and he was to have been sentenced on 12 July. But in a dramatic development, lawyers for ben Uliel convinced the judges to delay sentencing in the light of new evidence (see also Hebrew link here).
Apparently, the one survivor of that terrible night, Ahmad Dawabshe, now ten years old, was interviewed in Arab media and described the events that occurred five years ago in detail; in particular, he said that there were several attackers and they came into the house and struggled with family members. This contradicts the official version that ben Uliel was alone and threw firebombs through the windows. It also agrees with other testimonies of Arab witnesses who said at the time that there was more than one attacker (of course the Arabs say it was a group of “settlers”).
The court agreed to consider the evidence and pass sentence next month (ben Uliel could be acquitted of murder and convicted of other offenses).
Can a 5-year old be a reliable witness? Maybe yes and maybe no. Certainly the events he witnessed were likely to be engraved in his mind. “If he saw what he said he saw, ben Uliel is innocent” says ben Uliel’s lawyer. But memory is a tricky thing, and who knows if he is capable of reporting events without interpretation.
This has been a long road. The state does not come out looking good, no matter what the outcome. In the best case, the Shabak is guilty of mistreatment of numerous suspects, most of whom were guilty of nothing more serious than vandalism and adolescent fantasizing. It is likely that the agency engaged in a theatrical provocation intended to slander the hilltop youth as vicious murderers taunting their victims. Many public officials – including President Rivlin and right-wingers like Naftali Bennett – jumped to conclusions when they should have kept quiet. The worst case has the Shabak deliberately ignoring evidence that the arson/murders were carried out by Arab enemies of the Dawabshe family, and using the case to crush and discredit the admittedly extremist, and to some extent criminal, underground Jewish movement.
For what it’s worth (nothing, really) my personal opinion is that Amiram ben Uliel is innocent, perhaps guilty only of having grandiose plans for revenge. But of course I am only privy to the details that I can read in the media. In any case, the court will decide next month if he will be freed or spend the rest of his life in prison.