Despite Arrests, West Bank Arson Case Is Far From Solved

If the investigation fails, residents of the territories will see this as further proof that Israel does not value Palestinian lives, even when they're innocent terror victims.

AP

The Shin Bet security service's announcement of arrests in the arson killings of the Dawabsheh family may have been short on details, but at least it eased the media farce a bit.

Ever since a gag order was issued in the case earlier this week, the country was awash with rumors. The vague headlines about progress in the investigation of a Jewish terror attack set off a storm, as if there were more than one attack unsolved, the arson in the Palestinian village of Duma.

Renewed interest in the Duma attack generated unsubstantiated reports in every possible forum, from WhatsApp groups to foreign blogs. But Israel's media outlets were forced to play dumb as the military censor’s scissors worked overtime.

Now at least we can say what any reasonable reader might have guessed on Tuesday: There has been progress in the Duma investigation, but we can't report how many suspects are involved, who they are or where they live.

For now we have to suffice with saying that the detainees are not far from the ideological habitat or geographic area that were the Shin Bet and police's focus from the start.

As expected, the intense efforts by the Shin Bet’s Jewish division and the police’s Judea and Samaria District did not result in the arrests of Tel Aviv leftists. And the urban legend that many on the right passionately believed, that the killers were actually Palestinians, proved baseless.

Still, we're far from the end of the road. Just as it would have been better if left-wing politicians had not alleged that the Jewish division was deliberately dragging out the investigation, it's best now to eschew statements about the suspects' guilt. A conviction will require strong forensic evidence, the confession of someone involved, or both.

Solving the arson of the Church of Loaves and Fishes on Lake Kinneret, the most outstanding achievement in the war against Jewish terror thus far, relied mainly on a careful piecing together of intelligence information from DNA to security camera footage at a remote gas station. Right-wing extremists tend not to break under interrogation.

The guide to withstanding Shin Bet questioning, written by Hebron’s Noam Federman more than a decade ago, remains the manual studied by every hilltop youth before he goes out to spray his first vengeful graffiti. If it turns out that investigators extracted an incriminating statement from anyone directly or indirectly involved in the attack, it will be considered a major success.

From information gleaned from media interviews with the suspects’ families over the past 24 hours, it seems the detainees sprouted from the usual flower bed of right-wing ideological terror. Several had already been subject to house arrest by administrative order, either before or right after the Duma killings. It’s the same gang whose young spiritual leaders are well known to the Shin Bet and who should have been of interest to the Jewish division long before the arson attack.

Even if this case results in indictments, we'll have to figure out how the suspects evaded scrutiny. We'll have to determine whether the war on Jewish terror, which the prime minister and his ministers keep declaring is a high priority, is being conducted effectively.

Meanwhile, there’s a danger that the big headlines, which lack details because of the partial gag order still in place, give the erroneous impression that the arson has been definitively solved. While this would be a problematic assumption for Israelis, it's particularly relevant to Palestinian public opinion, given the assessment that the Duma killings were a main catalyst for the violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that began over two months ago.

If investigators fail to obtain enough evidence to prosecute the suspects, residents of the territories will see this as more proof that Israel does not value Palestinian lives, even when they're innocent terror victims.