Israel charged two suspects today for an arson attack in the West Bank village of Duma that killed three Palestinians last summer, ending a five-month investigation into the most high-profile act of settler violence against Palestinians.
Police named the lead suspect as 21-year old Amiram Ben Uliel, from Jerusalem. In a statement released today Israel’s Ministry of Justice said Ben Uliel is charged on multiple counts for “three acts of murder as well as attempted murder, arson, and criminal conspiracy with racist motives.” Prosecutors did not name his alleged accomplice, a 17-year-old settler. They indicted five others, who are accused of obstruction and carrying out a series of earlier attacks on Palestinians and their property.
On July 31, 2015, assailants set fire to the home of the Dawabshe family in Duma outside of Nablus, burning alive 18-month old Ali Dawabshe. In the weeks that followed the toddler’s parents—Sa’ad Dawabshe, 32, and Riham Dawabshe, 27—died from injuries sustained during the firebombing. The family is survived by four-year old Ahmad Dawabshe, who is still recovering from burns in an Israeli hospital.
Ben Uliel is the son of a rabbi and a member of a “hilltop youth” group, a loose organization of radical settlers who carry out acts of violence against Palestinians in the occupied territory. The other suspect, who is a minor and a West Bank settler, was listed as an accomplice to the murder and also a member of the same extremist group. Police said the accomplice provided logistical support to Ben Uliel but did not participate in the actual arson attack, failing to show up at the meeting point the night of the attack.
The accomplice’s name is withheld as he is a minor and a gag order is placed over revealing his identity.
Contradicting police findings, witnesses from Duma maintained after the attack they saw two suspects fleeing the scene, not one.
A statement from the Ministry of Justice added to the list of criminal acts the charge of “belonging to a terrorist organization.”
The Ministry of Justice statement continued with outlining key details of the crime that were included in the indictment against Ben Uliel. The timeline of the attack was developed from a confession and reenactment he allegedly gave police, along with testimony from the accused minor:
Ben-Uliel prepared a bag with two bottles full of a flammable liquid, rags, a lighter, a box of matches, gloves and a can of black spray-paint. On the night of 30 July, Ben-Uliel donned dark clothing and set out from his home with the bag in order to meet the accused minor in a cave at the outpost known as ‘Yishuv Da’at.’ After failing to meet the minor, Ben-Uliel decided to carry out the attack on his own. Upon reaching the outskirts of Duma, he tied his shirt around his head to hide his face and put the gloves on his hands. In order to increase the damage and ensure that the home he would set fire to was not abandoned, Ben-Uliel looked for a home with indications that it was inhabited. He first spray-painted the words ‘Revenge’ and ‘Long live the King Messiah’ on the walls of a two-story home belonging to Mamun Dawabshe and then threw a firebomb through one of its windows with the intention of killing its inhabitants. The home, which was empty, went up in flames.
Immediately afterwards, Ben-Uliel turned toward the home of Saad and Raham Dawabshe with the second firebomb in his hand. After trying to open two windows without success, he opened a window to the bedroom in which the family members were then sleeping, lit the firebomb, threw it in and fled on foot. The fire spread and caught four family members.
But it is not just Ben Uliel and the Duma file that will be on trial.
“During the arson and murder investigation into the Duma case investigators managed to link the suspects to other extremely dangerous facts in recent years,” police spokesperson Luba Samri said today.
The minor accused of aiding Ben Uliel was charged with firebombing the Dormition Abbey, a Jerusalem church outside of the Old City walls. The other suspects indicted for obstructing police were charged with property damage in the Beit Safafa neighborhood of Jerusalem and in the village of Kfar Yasuf near Nablus and burning a vehicle and attacking a Palestinian farmer in the Ramallah area.
“Jewish activists carried out various ‘Price Tag’ actions which were characterized by arson and spray-painting graffiti against Muslims and Christians simply because of the religious or national affiliation,” the Ministry of Justice said of the accused ring.
Police said the Duma inquiry was a “complex and tireless effort” coordinated between the police, Israeli’s security services and the state attorney’s office.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who labeled the Duma attack an act of “terrorism” within hours, praised today’s indictments. “Enforcing the law is the life’s breath of democracy,” Netanyahu said, adding, “We are a state of law and we will enforce the law throughout the State of Israel and vis-à-vis all citizens of Israel.”
Yet last fall after weeks of police searches and no indictments issued, Palestinians questioned the seriousness of Israeli police. In late September Israel’s defense minister Moshe Ya’alon was heavily criticized for stating, “We know who is responsible, but we will not expose those findings in order to protect our intelligence sources.”
At the time a spokesperson for Ya’alon’s office told Mondoweiss the minister’s words were used out of context and that the security services knew the group behind the attack, but not the identities of specific attackers. Members of Knesset from the Joint Arab List, Israel’s third largest political party and leading Arab-Palestinian faction replied that the minister’s comments demonstrated a lack of commitment to prosecute Israeli-Jews who carry out violence against Palestinians.
The Israeli human rights law firm Yesh Din reported this year that over the past decade Israel has indicted Jews in only 1.7-percent of violence perpetrated against Palestinians.
Advocates for the seven accused have also criticized the government’s handling of this case. They claim confessions from the two lead suspects were coerced under duress.
Attorney Chay Habber, who represents the minor charged in the case, told Arutz Sheva at the courthouse he hoped the trial would remain public in order to reveal the treatment his client received. “This is the first time that charges are filed based on evidence that was taken from a suspect that was using force, that was using torture,” said Habber. He said his cleint spoke to police only after he was physically abused during 40 days of questioning without access to legal counsel.
An additional 23 suspects have also been detained without charges for unknown periods of time in relation to the case. The state has reserved the right to charge them at a future date.
Outcry over police misconduct also has originated from those close to the lead defendant, Ben Uliel. His wife has alleged he was physically and sexually abused by police and she has stated Uliel was at home with her the night of the arson attack.
The parents of Ben Uliel said in a video message today they “believe in the innocence of our son, which will be proven in court, and we hope that the courts will reveal the harsh and violent abuse that he has suffered these past weeks during the interrogation process.”