In July 2015, there was an arson attack in the Arab village of Duma, near Nablus in Samaria. The home of Mamoun and Reham Dawabsheh was firebombed; they and their baby perished.
I do not minimize the horror of this event. But there has been a deeply disturbing lack of clarity regarding what subsequently transpired.
Attempts by security officials to identify the perpetrators quickly centered on “extremist Jewish settlers”. Fingers were pointed at right-wing religious young people called Hilltop Youth, societal drop-outs living in hilltop outposts. Expressing devotion to the Land, they pride themselves on their agricultural work and their intent to claim all of Israel. They disregard State building regulations. The State has betrayed Zionist ideals, they believe, by limiting settlement, negotiating the Oslo Accords and leaving Gaza.
They have sometimes been associated with “price tag” attacks, done in retaliation for Palestinian Arab terrorism against settlers. These attacks might involve defacing or destruction of Palestinian Arab property, taking down trees, etc. But 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.
Now, here, already, we have a deeply troubling question about how Israeli security handled the investigation.
Muslim Arab culture is still significantly clan-based in the villages; tension between clans frequently leads to physical altercations. In Duma, at the time of the above-mentioned arson, there was another clan engaged in a feud with the Dawabsheh clan: Reportedly, members of the extended Dawabsheh family were subject to arson attacks on six occasions.
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? Why should focus have been exclusively on the Jews?
Was there unease that involvement 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 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 already concluded that “radical Jews” were culpable.
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 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 have been the case here: Analysis of the graffiti by an expert graphologist revealed that the two instances were written by different hands. What is more, the words seemed to have been written by individuals not fully at ease with written Hebrew.
In December 2015, a number of Jewish suspects were arrested, harshly interrogated, and released; in January 2016, Amiram Ben-Uliel – a woodworker, age 21, with a wife and baby girl — was indicted for murder and membership in a Jewish terror organization. His 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 troubling inconsistencies in the narrative:
 The home in Duma that Ben-Uliel was charged with having firebombed was in the center of the village. But why would a Jew have gone all the way into the village and risked being caught, when the alleged goal of terror might have been just as well achieved by attacking a home on the periphery?
 Arab witness said they saw at least two people flee, but the indictment said that Ben-Uliel worked alone. Witnesses spoke about the perpetrators leaving in a car; the indictment had Ben-Uliel on foot.
During the investigation, Ben-Uliel was severely tortured three times, and subsequently “confessed” on three occasions. Had it been possible for authorities to make a conclusive case against him utilizing evidence alone, it is extremely doubtful that they would have resorted to torture.
Israeli law permits torture when there is a “ticking bomb” – a group planning a terror attack. Torture is employed to secure information to save lives. In the Ben-Uliel indictment, there was mention of participation in a Jewish terror group, which opened the door to the torture. However, there was no subsequent indication of his actually having been a member of such a 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. The third confession stood, however, because it was made 36 hours after the final torture; reasoning was that he had time to “recover.”
The court also alluded to his having reenacted 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…”
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, rejecting the appeal: The third confession stood because it was made 36 hours after the final torture had been applied and he had opportunity to recover; 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. No democracy in the world accepts as evidence in court confessions secured via torture. The trauma of severe and prolonged torture might exist for many years. The notion that it would have dissipated in 36 hours is nonsense.
MK Itamar Ben-Gvir (Chair, Otzma Yehudit) observed, “…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].”
Avenues for addressing this injustice remain. First concern is justice for Amiram Ben-Uliel. But Israeli democracy will also be rendered stronger if he receives it.
Arlene Kushner is an author, investigative journalist and blogger. She can be found at https://arlenefromisrael.info.