The Dawabshe Horror show

The treatment of the suspects in the arson murder of three members of the Dawabshe family in the Arab town of Duma is deeply disturbing. It is reminiscent of the behavior of tyrannical fascist or communist regimes, not an advanced first-world nation. That is not to take away from the horrific nature of the crime, but to put a not-too-fine point on it, the suspects probably did not commit the crime, were arrested for political reasons, and were tortured to obtain confessions. This in the State of Israel in the 21st century.

I have written several posts about the Duma murders, which took place in July of 2015, and the attempt by our General Security Service (“Shabak”) to pin the blame on Jewish extremists.

The beginning of the horror was the firebombing of the home of the family of Sa’ad and Riham Dawabshe while they and their children slept. 18 month old Ali died in the fire and the parents succumbed to their injuries shortly afterwards.

Immediately after the arson, then Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon, President Reuven Rivlin, Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett, and others denounced “Jewish terrorists,” even though no investigation had had time to begin. There are good reasons to think that the attack was part of a feud between members of the extended Dawabshe clan in the village, but that line of investigation was not followed up, even when other arsons of property belonging to the Dawabshe family occurred. By now it is probably too late. Justice for the Dawabshes will probably never arrive, since investigative trails in the village have gone cold.

Public figures on both the Right and the Left seemed to accept the “Jewish terrorism” explanation with very little questioning. It almost seemed that many of us, including politicians and journalists, were thirsty for stories that Jews could be as vicious as Arabs, and we lapped it up. And the Shabak, embarrassed by its failure to deal with “Jewish extremism” in Judea and Samaria – which was until then mostly confined to vandalism, graffiti and other relatively minor infractions – arrested numerous young members of the “hilltop youth” in connection with the case.

But despite their best efforts, normal investigative techniques did not yield results. Convinced that nevertheless the Duma murderers would be found among the disaffected right-wing youth, the Shabak asked for and got permission from then Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to use “enhanced interrogation techniques,” i.e., torture.

Two suspects are still imprisoned without being tried almost three years after the events: Amiram Ben Uliel (23) and a 19-year old whose name has not been released. Ben Uliel was indicted for murder; his trial was to have begun but was postponed. The 19-year old was released at one point, but was then re-arrested. A hearing is scheduled for today to determine if he will be tried. They have been under continuous psychic and intermittent physical pressure.

Both suspects have supposedly “confessed,” but the confessions were obtained by torture and are not very convincing, riddled with inconsistencies. An account published in the Jewish Press, based on an interview with the father of the younger one, is shocking. For example:

Hands and legs cuffed, E is thrown on a short chair without back support. An interrogator pushes his chest at 45 degrees so that the exhausted youth collapses back in an arc, his head hits the floor, and for the next eight to nine hours, he is kicked and slapped, and screamed at incessantly: confess or you’ll never get out of here alive.

He weeps in pain, but his cries of anguish have no effect: his tormentors show no mercy. This goes on for three days. At one point, he confesses to everything: I did it, he screams, I did everything you’re saying I did. But when they ask him to describe in detail what he had done, he can’t. Tell me what I did and I’ll confess to it, he begs in tears, head back against the cement floor, body arched in mid air, arms and legs cuffed.

Yes, the crime that they are suspected of committing was heinous, but it would seem that after three years a professional organization like the Shabak, which has penetrated countless Arab terrorist cells, solved numerous murders, and no doubt saved thousands of lives, could come up with more than inconsistent and uncorroborated confessions obtained under extreme duress from a couple of unsophisticated young people.

There are two important related legal points raised in the Jewish Press article, and although I am not a lawyer it seems to me that the judge that presides over the hearing today will have to deal with them. One is that torture is not permissible unless it is undertaken in order to defuse a “ticking bomb.” The Shabak had to convince the Attorney General that the suspects could reasonably be expected to have information about other planned attacks, and this was quite a stretch when there was zero physical evidence against them for the one attack. Second, and more directly relevant to the fate of the suspects, is that

…the most crucial problem with the Duma arson/murder case is that a conviction in a case based on a confession, must offer a confession that was given willingly.

Haim Levinson, who writes about clandestine services for Ha’aretz, noted the 2011 appeal of the Arab terrorist who led the 2002 massacre at the Park hotel in Netanya. His attorney argued that while it may have been proper to use torture on his client under the ticking bomb theory, the confession he gave under torture could not by definition be used to convict him. The judge reluctantly accepted this argument and upheld his conviction based on other evidence.

This case is indeed a horror story, horrible not only for what happened to the Dawabshes and what was done to the suspects, but for what it suggests about Ya’alon, the former Defense Minister, then-Attorney General Weinstein, and countless other officials who either pushed the Jewish terrorism hypothesis with zero evidence, gave unjustified permission for the use of torture, or simply averted their eyes – and they have remained averted three years later.

Maybe they think that the struggle against Jewish extremism justifies what was done. Maybe they think that the suspects were certainly guilty of something  if not murder, perhaps embarrassing the state in front of the Americans and Europeans by taking part in “price tag” vandalism. But maybe it will help them think again to consider that the father of the 19-year old suspect was born in America, and his son happens to be an American citizen. That could become embarrassing, too.

The director of the Shabak was replaced in 2016, and Ya’alon and Weinstein are gone too. Why doesn’t the government cut its losses, blame the previous officials for “mistakes that were made,” and – unless it has real evidence for the guilt of the suspects – let them go?

It can’t undo the damage that the story has done to Israel’s image, the ammunition it gave to those who like to accuse us of racism and even genocide. It can’t fix the damage done to the suspects by the trauma caused by years of psychic and physical torture.

All it can do is end the horror show.

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