“Ouch!! Confronting Truth, Because We Must!!”
The world is full of incidents that it would be easier, more comfortable, to avoid confronting – but which we must meet head on because truth matters. In the case I am going to address here, it matters a great deal indeed.
In July 2015, there was a horrendous arson attack in the Arab village of Duma, not far from Shechem (Nablus) in the Shomron. The home of Mamoun and Reham Dawabsheh was firebombed and went up in flames. Eighteen month-old Ali died in the fire and his parents succumbed to their injuries days later. A second son, age five, was badly injured but survived.
Let it be clearly said: Not for a microsecond do I minimize the horror of this event.
But there has been a distinct – a deeply disturbing – lack of clarity regarding what subsequently transpired. I have followed this case for a long time; I have consulted with knowledgeable others and have struggled in my efforts to make sense of it all.
Attempts by security officials to identify the perpetrators of the arson quickly centered on what were broadly referred to as “extremist Jewish settlers“ – with fingers pointed more specifically at the right-wing religious young people commonly called the Hilltop Youth. This is a small, amorphous movement numbering only in the hundreds.
These youth are societal drop-outs who live in hilltop outposts with peers. Giving voice to their devotion to the Land, they pride themselves on their agricultural work and on their intent to claim all of Israel. This means they disregard State regulations regarding building on the land. The State, after all, has betrayed Zionist ideals, they believe, by severely limiting settlement, negotiating the Oslo Accords and pulling out of Gaza.
They have sometimes been associated with “price tag” attacks, done in retaliation for Palestinian Arab terrorism against settlers. These attacks, usually accompanied by “price tag” graffiti, might involve defacing or destruction of Palestinian Arab property, taking down trees, etc. But let it be said with absolute clarity, this group was not associated with murder.
There are those who demonize the Hilltop Youth, likening them to the worst of Arab terrorists. Then, there are those who praise them for keeping the spirit of Zionism alive – some saying Israel would not persist without the Zionist values they model.
Please, see the article about the Hilltop Youth by Sheri Oz. She reports that everyone who meets them directly – and they encourage such meetings – comes away with a more positive attitude towards them:
Now, here, already, we have a deeply perplexing question about how Israeli security forces handled the investigation of the Duma arson.
For those not familiar with Muslim Arab culture, I note that it is still significantly clan-based in the villages; tension between clans leads not infrequently to physical altercations. It happens that within the village of Duma, at the time of the arson I refer to above, there was another hamula (clan) that was engaged in a feud with the Dawabsheh hamula.
We can readily discover via the Internet that other members of the extended Dawabsheh family experienced arson attacks on several occasions. A mere month after the firebombing that killed the three, the home of Mamoun’s brother was attacked by fire. Reportedly there were six such incidents in a relatively brief time.
So then, we must ask why authorities did not conclude that this feud might account for the fatal arson. Why were local Arab suspects not brought in for questioning, just as a number of “settlers” were? Why should focus have been exclusively on the Jews?
I can raise these questions, but not answer them definitively. Was there unease that getting involved in an Arab clan feud would not play well – not internationally and not with local Arabs? Did antipathy to the Hilltop Youth among the security forces color their judgement? Was there an eagerness to discredit the Youth, who are viewed by law enforcement as problematic? Or to demonstrate to the world that Israeli security forces are prepared to confront Jews – especially ultra-Orthodox Jews – seen as radicals?
International media – predominantly left-wing – had quickly drawn the conclusion that “radical Jews” were culpable. An internal Israeli security investigation should not have been impacted by this, but was it?
One of the things that might have moved authorities to look towards the Hilltop Youth was the fact that there was graffiti in two locations on the firebombed house. The operating thesis then seems to have been that the arson was a “price tag” attack.
But there have been times when Arabs themselves have caused damage to Arab property in order to implicate Jews. There was certainly reason to conclude this might be the case here: Analysis of the graffiti by an expert graphologist revealed that the two instances were written by different hands. What is more, while the words were written in Hebrew, they seemed to have been written by someone not fully at ease with written Hebrew.
This graffiti says, “Revenge”:
This was not the norm for “price tag” attacks, which usually included graffiti with the term “tag meir,” price tag.
The other graffiti says “Long live the King Messiah”:
This is a Chabad phrase, but the Hilltop Youth are not associated with Chabad. This is a phrase that might have been employed by an Arab not familiar with differences between ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups.
See details on the graffiti:
In December 2015, a number of Jewish suspects were arrested and subjected to harsh interrogation in an attempt to discover who was responsible. Ultimately, they were released; in January 2016, Amiram Ben-Uliel – a woodworker, age 21, with a wife and baby girl — was indicted for murder and for membership in a Jewish terror organization.
It should be noted here that Ben-Uliel’s handwriting did not match either graffiti sample.
The investigation by authorities following his indictment failed to secure information that would have conclusively determined his guilt. What is more, there were inconsistencies in the narrative and doubts about the situation that were troubling:
- The home in Duma that Ben-Uliel was charged with having firebombed was in the center of the village. It is important to ask why a Jew would have gone all the way into the village and risked being caught, when the alleged goal of terror against a Palestinian Arab family might have been just as well achieved by attacking a home on the periphery of the village.
- Arab witness said they saw at least two people flee, but the indictment said that Ben-Uliel worked alone. Further, witnesses spoke about the perpetrators leaving in a car, but the indictment had Ben-Uliel on foot.
In the course of the investigation, Ben-Uliel was subjected to severe torture on three occasions, and subsequently “confessed” on three occasions. Had it been possible for the authorities to make a conclusive case against him utilizing evidence alone, it is extremely doubtful that they would have resorted to torture. It seems that they did not have the evidence. But they had issued the indictment and the world was watching.
Israeli law permits torture in instances where there is a “ticking bomb” – a terror group in the midst of planning a terror attack. Torture, utilized for this reason on occasion against a Palestinian Arab member of such a group, is employed to secure information that will allow authorities to save lives.
That approach was employed with Ben-Uliel, as the original indictment included mention of his participation in a Jewish terror group. However, even with his torture, there was no indication of his being a member of a terror group.
He later retracted his confessions, because they were secured under coercion. In June 2018, the Lod District Court accepted his claim in two instances, ruling out two of his confessions. The third confession stood, however, because it was made 36 hours after the final torture and the reasoning was that he had time to “recover” before making his confession.
The court also alluded to his having re-enacted the terror act:
“According to an Army Radio report…Ben Uliel gave vague answers and asked the officers ‘don’t force me.’ The reenactment took place…just three days after Ben Uliel confessed under extreme physical and emotional pressure and duress…
“According to the report, the detectives and [security] personnel took Ben Uliel to Duma and asked him ‘Where are we going?’ Ben Uliel responded, ‘I have no idea.’ The detectives told him ‘just like what we talked about, nothing has changed, where are we going?’ Ben Uliel responded and said ‘I don’t know…To Duma.’
…”The detective then read for Ben Uliel a pre-written document that said ‘I am prepared of my own free will to point out what happened,’ and then told Ben Uliel to sign the document…”
In May 2020, Amiram Ben-Uliel was convicted by the Lod District Court of three counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder, and two counts of arson, as part of a “terrorist act.”
In September 2020, he was sentenced to three life terms for murder, 17 years for attempted murder, and 10 years for arson.
His lawyers then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled last week, on September 1, essentially reiterating the ruling of the Lod Court in 2018 and rejecting the appeal: The third confession by Ben-Uliel stood because it was made 36 hours after the final torture had been applied to him and he had opportunity to recover, and then there was that reenactment.
“…the court said that there was ‘no doubt’ Ben Uliel had committed the ‘shocking and deeply disturbing’ attack.”
No doubt? The mind reels.
This ruling can only be described as an outrageous miscarriage of justice.
There is no democracy in the world that accepts as evidence in court confessions secured via torture.
It is commonplace information, well understood, that torture so traumatizes its victim that false confessions can be made simply to alleviate the pain or the terror. The trauma might exist for many years. The notion that it would have dissipated in 36 hours is nonsense.
Said the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (emphasis added):
“Despite the seriousness of the acts of which Ben Uliel is accused and the deep tragedy inflicted on the Dawabsha family it would have been appropriate for the court to have given decisive weight to the fact that before Ben Uliel confessed to the acts, interrogation methods involving severe and prolonged torture were applied to him, something that is already known to often lead to false confessions from those interrogated for acts which they did not carry out.”
MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (Chair, Otzma Yehudit) observed that, “…this is a case of abject injustice. The laws of the State of Israel require the rejection of the confession…It’s a black day for democracy [in Israel].”
I have been advised by a lawyer that there are still avenues for addressing this injustice.
The first concern is that justice should be done for Amiram Ben-Uliel.
But Israel democracy will also be rendered stronger if this situation is addressed.
What is required is national will.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner.