Every day Aida Touma-Sliman is briefed about discrimination or worse—acts of violence—against her constituents. She is a member of Knesset with the Joint Arab List, and the first Arab woman to head a parliamentary committee. “In the last few years there were 17 mosques and churches burned down or attacked by right-wing activists or racists,” she said in an interview with me. “These are the extreme cases, but every day we hear about cases by the seashore, or at the nightclubs—or of hotels warning their visitors that they might have Muslims [guests].”
Yet when it comes to criminalizing and preventing Jewish extremist violence, like the firebombing of a West Bank family last July killing three—Ali Dawabshe, 18 months old, and his parents Sa’ad Dawabshe and Riham Dawabshe—Knesset member Touma-Sliman’s hands are tied.
“We’re are not able to influence these decisions,” she said of harsher regulations on violent acts now circulating through Knesset. Although her party, the Joint Arab List, is the third largest in Israel’s government, it does not have many allies. “We are in the margins of the margins of the opposition,” said Touma-Sliman. She expressed dissent last week when an anti-terrorism bill that was initially proposed to curtail settler violence was re-drafted into legislation targeting critics of Israel’s occupation and supporters of Hamas. Under the latest version, minors as young as 12 can face charges for donning tee-shirts bearing the name of the militant Islamic group that runs the Gaza Strip. No special measures were included to address the issue of settler violence.
That has not stopped Touma-Sliman from sending letters to ministers or urging action from the parliament floor, albeit amid boos and jeers from her peers who called her a traitor. “We knew from the beginning this will not be a law against settlers. All of the laws are issued against Palestinians or supporters to the end of the occupation. We are under no illusions.”
Of the Israeli politicians who decried the fire in Duma as an act of “Jewish terrorism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu included, Touma-Sliman said the words were hollow platitudes that have not yielded policy changes. “While condemning the burning alive of a whole family is not something very difficult to do, the right thing now is to point out what brought us to this situation,” she said. “What I want the government to do, it seems to me they are not willing to do.” She referred to the statement by Israel’s defense minister last week that he knew who had committed the Duma murders but would not indict them for now because it would reveal the identities of government informants.
Touma-Sliman said Israel has tools at its disposal such as ordering a closed hearing, which can conceal sources. “They can cover the identify of those who gave them the information. In my opinion this is only an excuse for not holding them responsible, or putting them in trial for their crime.”
She said his unwillingness to go ahead with charges was “thus authorizing the next murder” of a Palestinian.
“We have been hearing about different attack of the Palestinian villages for some time, and there were different reports of attempts to burn houses. In the past it was fields—olives fields. They [Jewish extremists] burned hundreds of fields, thousand of olives trees that dated back hundreds of years. But when it’s a family, it’s different.”
The morning after the Duma attack, Touma-Sliman traveled to the Palestinian village outside of Nablus with a Knesset delegation from the Joint Arab List. “When I visited I could smell it still, there was a very odd smell, a bad one. And it looked like there was skin that was burned. To tell the truth, I was overwhelmed, shocked, angered and saddened all at once,” Touma-Sliman said. The group visited with women and youngsters from the Dawabshe family
“I looked at the eyes of the children, and the children were really traumatized. How can people be so cruel, how can people be so criminal?” she said.
Hours after the attack that left baby Ali dead and his parents in critical condition (they died in the following weeks), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would seek out the “Jewish terrorist” behind the attack. A graffiti mark bearing the Hebrew word “revenge” indicated the crime was nationally motivated, and early reports suggested settlers were the assailants.
Touma-Sliman is not convinced the pronouncements will lead to substantive changes in how Israel responds to settler violence. The United Nations recorded settler violence increased fourfold since 2006, yet Israel currently has only one undercover unit responsible for weeding out violent settlers. The outfit is widely considered to be underfunded as a result of lobbying from settler groups. Three years ago members of that unit were beaten with sticks by settlers who mistook them for Palestinian shepherds. When the United Nations statistics on settler violence were published, former IDF commander of the West Bank, Gadi Zohar, told The National, “There is not enough pressure from the prime minister, the defence minister, the interior minister to prevent this.”
Touma-Sliman blames the growth in settler violence on Israel’s government. Her view is that the settler voice is mainstreamed in her country’s politics.
“First of all I think the cause of all of these crimes is the continuation of the occupation and the ideology that leads to a situation where you don’t the see the other, and you confiscate their land, and the government lets them occupy the land,” she said. Two weeks before the Duma attack, Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked appointed a former member of the Jewish Underground who had plotted to blow up Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque to a committee against incitement, Touma-Sliman pointed out. Haggai Segel served a three year sentence for his crime, during which he authored a book explaining his view that violence—against both the state of Israel and Palestinians—is legitimate when working towards a nationalist cause.
“You have ministers sitting in the government that are representing the settler movement,” Touma-Sliman said, both ideologically and as constituents. “This government is too much involved [in the settler movement],” she went on. “This government has embraced the settlers, including the most radical among them.”