Israel Charges Two Jews Over West Bank Arson Murders

One adult charged with three counts of murder, one minor charged as accessory to murder. Two others charged with violence against Palestinians.

The interior of the torched house of the Dawabsheh family in Duma, near the West Bank city of Nablus, December 3, 2015.
The interior of the torched house of the Dawabsheh family in Duma, near the West Bank city of Nablus, December 3, 2015. Moti Milrod

Israeli prosecutors filed murder charges on Sunday against two Jewish citizens for the arson attack in the West Bank that killed three members of a Palestinian family last July.

Amiram Ben-Uliel, a 21-year-old from Jerusalem, was charged with three counts of murder, as well as attempted murder for the unsuccessful attempt to set alight another house. 

An accessory to murder charge was filed against a minor who is suspected of participating in the incident, while two others were charged with violence against Palestinians. 

It remains unclear whether other suspects held by the Shin Bet security service and Israel Police were released or if investigations are ongoing.

Ben-Uliel was detained by the Shin Bet on December 1. According to the indictment filed at Lod District Court on Sunday, he committed the act himself,in retaliation for the June murder of Malachai Rosenfeld, not far from the West Bank village of Duma. 

Amiram Ben-Uliel.
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Before the arson, Ben-Uliel and the minor, who was charged as an accessory for allegedly participating in the planning of the attack, scouted villages before settling on Duma.

According to the charge sheet, the two also planed to attack the nearby village of Majdal, with the purpose of killing people in their beds.

On the night of the attack on the Dawabsheh home, Ben-Uliel decided to proceed with the arson alone after failing to meet up with the minor at the appointed place.

He allegedly searched for a home that was inhabited and used his first firebomb on a two-storey building that turned out to be uninhabited. He then proceded to the Dawabshehs' home, prepared his firebomb in the yard and spray-painted graffiti on the walls, before throwing the firebomb into the house and fleeing on foot.

The eldest son in his family, Ben-Uliel grew up in the settlement of Karmei Zur. His father, Reuven, is the rabbi of the settlement and also serves as the rabbi for Mechina Nokdim, a preparatory program for religious youths entering the army. After the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammad Abu Khdeir last July, he signed a letter condemning the act.

For years, Amiram Ben-Uliel was part of the Hilltop Youth movement of Jewish extremists, although not its head. He was the face of the Ramat Migron outpost, and spent time in the Giulat Tzion outpost and the settlement of Itamar. Two years ago, he married Orian Nizri, an activist known for her extremism and violence. They lived in a bus in the Adei Ad outpost. After the Duma arson attack, they moved to Jerusalem and became ultra-Orthodox. The couple has a baby.

Ben-Uliel has been involved in several criminal cases. He previously expressed that he does not recognize Israeli courts and demands to be judged according to traditional Jewish law. Ben-Uliel is the only suspect detained in the Duma issue who was not placed under a Shin Bet restraining order, indicating that he somehow managed to evade the Shin Bet’s radar.

His family released a video Sunday morning stating their belief in his innocence and that Shin Bet torture during the investigation led to his confession.

Also charged were Yinon Reuveni, accused of setting fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in the Galilee, and another minor, identified only as A., accused of a series of incidents of vandalism and arson against property and cars.

Reuveni and two minors were also charged with setting fire to a building near Jerusalem's Dormition Abbey last February.

A. is a resident of the Tzofim settlement and the son of the community's rabbi. He is also a member of Tzohar, a religious Orthodox Zionist organization and part of the Hilltop Youth movement. He was inspired to join the movement by his older brother, who is known to the Shin Bet as a right-wing extremist with a violent past.

A. had been detained by the Shin Bet in the past, but was always released due to lack of evidence. After one of the investigations, he published a video in which he explained that he remained silent during questioning because communicating with the Shin Bet was akin to communicating with representatives of the "Kingdom of Evil."

Nine suspects have been detained as part of the police and Shin Bet investigation, which is still in progress. In total, 23 people were suspected of violence against Palestinians.

A break in the case came three weeks ago, when Shin Bet began to use what they termed extraordinary measures during interrogations, first with A. At the beginning, the minor admitted his involvement in other incidents, but not the Duma firebombing. Under torture, he admitted they planned the event, but he had fallen asleep and did not arrive to the location in time. After his incrimination, special interrogation tactics were used on Ben-Uliel, who admitted to the crime and recounted the incident.

Some details related to other offenses allegedly committed by the accused will remain under a gag order.

The Shin Bet did not address the nature of the investigation, but in a briefing on Sunday morning said that a part of The Revolt network, which aims to topple the government, became stronger at the end of 2013. The organization's documents, which were found but have not yet been published, indicate that its intent is to name a king, reconstruct the Temple, eliminate idolatry, expel Gentiles and install religious coercion in the public domain.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told journalists at the beginning of Sunday's cabinet meeting that she hopes the suspects behind the Duma attack will receive a fair and just trial. Shaked refused to respond when asked whether she trusts the court or if she believes the suspects will receive a fair trial.

The Dawabsheh family home in Duma was torched on July 31, immediately killing 18-month-old Ali and critically wounding his mother, father and brother. His mother, Reham, and his father, Sa'ad, subsequently died from their injuries. His 4-year-old brother Ahmed is still hospitalized in serious condition.

The words "Vengeance" and "Long live the Messiah" were spray-painted on the torched home, and an empty house was also set ablaze. An eyewitness reported seeing four men fleeing the scene toward the Ma'aleh Ephraim settlement.

The Israel Defense Forces described the incident as "Jewish terrorism." Following the attack, at the request of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the security cabinet approved the use of administrative detention against suspected Jewish terrorists. Such practice is commonly used against Palestinians suspected of terror activities.

Lawyers representing the Duma suspects claimed that their clients were subjected to torture during interrogation.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the lawyer of the key suspect in the attack, said that his client was "subjected to sexual harassment, to violation of what is most sacred to him in his world of observing the Torah and its commandments, as well as being deprived of sleep for a very long period."

One of the suspects in the case detailed the alleged torture in court: "They turn me upside down until my hands start burning – it feels like they are burning me with a lighter. They are taking me apart, bending my whole back, laughing and looking at me contemptuously."

According to the lawyers, the suspects confessed under torture to a series of violent incidents, such as the torching of mosques, but did not confess to the arson in Duma.

Remarking on allegations that the Shin Bet was torturing the Duma suspects, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented that all the Shin Bet’s actions comply with the law and are closely supervised by the attorneys general of the state and Justice Ministry, and the courts.