Haaretz Q&A: Duma Attack and Jewish Terrorists

Readers put their questions to our correspondent: Will suspects be found guilty? Will Israel compensate the Dawabsheh family? How do these extremists compare to the Jewish underground? Did the key suspect really act alone? What rights does the dual Israeli-American citizen have? And others.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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A relative stands on January 3, 2016, inside the burned-out home of Saad Dawabsha, who was killed alongside his toddler and his wife when their house was firebombed on July 31, 2015 in the West Bank village of Duma.
A relative stands on Jan. 3, 2016, inside the burned-out home of Saad Dawabsha, who was killed alongside his toddler and his wife when their house was firebombed on July 31, 2015 in Duma, West Bank.Credit: AFP
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Chaim Levinson is answering readers' questions about the arson attack that killed three members of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma, and the Jewish extremists who live on the hilltops of the settlements. Readers also asked Levinson, Haaretz's West Bank correspondent, about the Shin Bet's interrogation tactics, the process of issuing indictments against the suspects, and whether or not they will be tried as terrorists.

1. Why, in your opinion, are the lawyers widely spreading the claim that the suspects were tortured? Are they trying to ruin the Shin Bet's reputation? Are they trying to disqualify the evidence (confessions) from being used in court?

The lawyers are emphasizing it for two reasons: A. It's an excellent argument for the defense and most of the trial will focus on the question of how the confessions were obtained and whether they were made of their own free will. B. They want to undermine the Shin Bet and restrict its activities in future. In that case I agree with them. Torture is a red line in a democratic country.

2. Do you think the Shin Bet released the "wedding of hate" video in order to shift the public conversation away from surrounding the the interrogation tactics? (And at the same time win the public's support for using harsh measures against suspects?)

In regard to how the wedding video got to Channel 10, I don't think that a journalist has to answer questions about sources, certainly not other people's sources. Although I know the answer I won't reply. In general, I'll say that it's not always true that what looks like the result of advance planning really is. In Israel there's more absence of planning than overplanning.

3. Do you expect the episode will end in jail sentences for the suspects?

Unfortunately, it's hard for me to see three judges in Israel who will disqualify the confessions because of the methods by which they were extracted. In the final analysis the judges here are looking for a way to convict rather than to acquit, and therefore those involved will be imprisoned for long periods.

Chaim LevinsonCredit: Nir Kafri

4. Do you think the Shin Bet and the defense establishment (up to the defense minister) feels public pressure to put the assailants behind bars?

There's public pressure and there's international pressure, but I think that first of all they want to imprison them because they think it's a despicable crime that has no place in a democratic society, and they would do anything possible to imprison the offenders even without any pressure.

5. Why do right wing leaders like Bezalel Smotrich refuse to call them Jewish terrorists even though the army and defense minister describe them as such?

I'm not Bezalel Smotrich's spokesman, but he claims that terror is enemies of the state against the state, and not marginal people who are part of its establishment, who are criminals who also have to be dealt with. It's playing dumb at best and at worst grants legitimacy for these actions.

6. Why do you think it took so long for suspects to be arrested?

I don't consider five months a long time. It's better to take the time and investigate properly than to rush and make mistakes. There are also Palestinian murderers whom it takes time to catch. The kidnappers of the yeshiva boys in June 2014 walked free for three and a half months.

7. Do you think the security services behaved differently toward these suspects than they do toward Palestinian suspects?

Palestinians are subject to military law and Israelis to Israeli law, so it's built in that Israelis get a law that treats them better. In terms of the motivation of the security agencies it's the same as with the Palestinians and even greater. In the final analysis the Shin Bet used all the means at its disposal, including (allegedly) torture, in order to dismantle this terror infrastructure, so it can't be claimed that the security services are racist.

8. Will the Israeli government demolish these terrorists' houses?

No. The opinion of the Israeli government, which was also accepted by the Supreme Court, is that acts of violence by Jews are minor and there's no need to deter the general public, as opposed to the Palestinian public. In general I'm opposed to the claim that Jewish homes should be demolished too. We have to stop demolishing Palestinian homes. You fight someone benighted with light, not with something benighted but equal.

9. I would like to know logistics for Palestinians when this stuff happens. A. How soon did the military and/or police arrive? B. Who took care of the ambulance and logistics? C. How soon was the family able to join them in Israel? D. Who is taking care of the grandfather's living expenses?

A. In an incident of this kind the Palestinian police mediate with the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the army gets going. It takes them 10 minutes to arrive, because before entering a village they organize a large force for fear that a small force will be attacked. There have already been cases when the police that arrived to investigate the firebombing of a mosque encountered violence on the part of locals and was forced to withdraw.

B. The Palestinians have their own ambulances that evacuate to Palestinian hospitals. If necessary they use an ambulance to evacuate to an Israeli hospital. It happens all the time, in cases of traffic accidents and so on.

C. The family has to request a humanitarian permit, and usually they receive it quite quickly.

D. Good question. I don't have an answer. Send me your email address, I'll find out and give you an answer.

10. Who is taking care of the child's treatment expenses? (We keep reading claims that the hospitals bill the grandparents.)

In general, when Palestinians are evacuated for treatment in an Israeli hospital, the Palestinian Authority is supposed to guarantee in advance that it will pay the bill. In this case the PA doesn't want to pay the bill, in order to save money. Israel will foot the bill.

11. Will Israel pay compensation to the Dawabsheh family?

According to law they aren't entitled to compensation, but there's a committee that can decide on compensation beyond the letter of the law. That was done in the past with the family members who were injured by an incendiary device near Bat Ayin in 2012.

12. Do you think the "wedding of hate" video was kind of watershed? Did it touch a nerve in mainstream Israel whose affects will last?

The wedding video was a good illustration of the levels of extremism and hatred of Arabs among the extreme right. The participants in the wedding are good friends of the detainees in the affair, and it's probable that had the detainees not been under arrest at the time they would also have been participating. The video will remain in Israeli awareness in the coming years. The visual impact there is so great and it's so easy to use it in order to make a point about the dangers of extremism, that it's hard to see it disappearing.

13. Who is more dangerous (to life and to the future of Israel) – the Jewish underground of the early 1980s or the hilltop youth group we see now?

The Jewish Underground of the 1980s were activists from the heart of the settler establishment who operated out of a sense of that the fate of their enterprise was in danger. Today there's a consensus that the settlement enterprise is here to stay and the settlers were victorious in their historic project. That's why today's terrorists are from the margins of the camp, and are motivated by hatred of Arabs and other ideas, less related to the survival of settlements.

14. Do you think the Israeli authorities have been slow, or too nervous, about acting against Jewish terror? After all, you've reported about their radical activities stretching back years.

I think the police failed in dealing with these terrorists when they began their activities as petty criminals. As opposed to what is claimed, that doesn't stem from specific neglect of Jewish terror. The police everywhere in the country are weak when it comes to handling petty crimes and investigations. If they check files in the Northern District thoroughly, it's not certain that they'll discover a higher level of investigations.

There are two more objective problems. Many of the suspects are minors and that gives them privileges during the judicial process. Second, when judges get these suspects they see a minor who has destroyed property and don't understand that this is a future terrorist. In recent years the police have actually been investing considerable resources in handling the phenomenon and they have been relatively successful.

15. To what extent can we blame the teachers, rabbis and parents of the suspects? And the politicians of the right who have backed various illegal acts in the settlements?

In general, these hilltop youth are an educational and familial failure. You can blame the parents and the teachers, as in any instance when a child leaves school and starts running around on the hilltops. But from my familiarity with most of the parents, they try to do a lot in order to stop their child's activity. As far as politicians and machers, one of the dominant characteristics of these young people is a total disdain for these politicians, who in their opinion are playing a double game. While they themselves violate the law by building outposts, they don't support their (the youths') violations. Their activities also go against the settler establishment.

16. Can you see a situation where if the Palestinian Authority collapses there might be some form of guerrilla war between Palestinian and Israeli settler extremists focusing on hurting each other's civilians?

No. The Israeli army is strong enough to prevent a guerrilla war like that in Bosnia, for example. There could definitely be an increase in the level of violence, but if the PA collapses, local violence of some kind or other will be the least of Israel's problems.

17. How worried should pro-Israel Jews outside Israel be of the Jewish extremists changing Israel as we know it now?

In general I believe that supporters of Israel who don't live here would be better off focusing on the affairs of their countries and less on Israel's affairs. But because after all, this is the Haaretz website that addresses such an audience, I'll say this: The Israeli public has been moving far to the right in recent years. There are all kinds of reasons, demographic, political and international. If someone wants to exert an influence and to act to make the country more liberal, I'll be happy if he comes to live in Israel instead of "worrying" from San Francisco.

18. Are Tel Aviv and the hilltops already separate states? Is there any common ground anymore?

Liberal Israel society, which is concentrated in Tel Aviv, has long been cut off from right-wing/religious society. The levels of hatred and abhorrence here between the two groups rises to the high heavens again and again. It's enough to see the bizarre reactions to the terror attack in Tel Aviv – including blaming the Tel Avivians for the terrorist's escape, because they didn't tackle him or shoot at him – in order to see the extent to which Israeli society has split into separate groups.

19. Do you see ideological and/or practical similarities between radical Islamist terror and radical Jewish terror?

Every type of radical behavior has similarities, mainly in the process in which the scion of a bourgeois families becomes a radical, whether in Islamic State or by burning a family. I still don't think that even the worst of the hilltop youth has reached one hundredth of what ISIS is capable of, and it's doubtful whether it's possible to reach such levels of insanity. In general I'm not crazy about comparisons, and certainly not about this one.

20. Can we trust the Shin Bet to have extracted a legitimate confession if indeed it is true that it was elicited under torture?

No. The torture definitely casts a heavy shadow over the confessions, and that will probably be the main question at the trial.

21. There were reports that the main suspect didn't act alone. Why hasn't his collaborator also been issued an indictment?

During the investigation they were unable to find another perpetrator, although all indications point to the fact that there were two people there.

22. I read that witnesses said there were four people who ran away from the Dawabsheh family home that night. Why hasn't the Shin Bet caught them all?

Four is an inflated number. Eyewitnesses are not always accurate, certainly during such a quick and dramatic event. It's certainly likely that there were two people there and not just Amiram Ben-Uliel, but Ben-Uliel claimed that he acted on his own.

23. How many acts of terror were committed against Jews in the Duma village area?

A month before the attack Malachi Rosenfeld was murdered nearby, that was presumably the trigger for setting the house on fire. It should be noted that the murderers did not come from Duma itself.

24. How many (if any) members of the families living in Duma have convicted terrorists who have been or are in Israeli custody?

I don't know.

25. Was there a difference in the interrogation approaches (allegedly torture) that were employed in this instance compared with those utilized previously for Jewish suspects of torture? If yes, why was this incident the catalyst for the change? If there was a change, what will it be?

Since 1999, when the Supreme Court invalidated the Shin Bet's torture methods, there hasn't been a case where such methods were used against Jews. Before 1999 I will modestly admit that I can't say unequivocally that there weren't any such methods. I think that there are two changes. The Shin Bet really is worried about this gang and its danger to the security of the region, and there has been a deterioration in human rights in Israel so that the Shin Bet feels more confident about violating them.

26. Generally, how do settlers see this attack and the individuals who committed the crimes? Do they understand them? Do they fear the impact of their actions on the settler community? I am sure there is diversity. Can you give a sense of the different views and rough percentages of people who hold these views?

There are 400,000 people living in the settlements, many of them secular or ultra-Orthodox who are less interested in issues related to the settlement enterprise. As for religious Zionism I would say the following: There are thousands who are indifferent to violence of this type, hundreds who are supportive and dozens who perpetrate it. The absolute majority still condemns deeds of this type.

28. Why isn't Israel destroying the illegal outposts where so many of the Price Tag militants live?

The Shin Bet has singled out two outposts as causing violence: Geulat Zion and the Baladim. They demolish them all the time. On the other hand, dozens of other outposts receive encouragement from the government or the government turns a blind eye, which sends an ambiguous message about law enforcement in the territories.

29. Why is it that the suspects' lawyers didn't appeal to the Supreme Court against advance permission for torture that was reportedly given by the attorney general?

Nobody knew about the advance permission. Attorney Itamar Ben Gvir appealed against the torture of his client the moment he realized that there had been torture, but due to a gag order I can't answer as to the reply of the Shin Bet. I'll only say that Justice Uzi Vogelman did as little as possible, to put it mildly.

30. I understand that one of the minors who was allegedly tortured is an American citizen. Does he have an option of suing for compensation in America from the country or personally from the attorney general?

A. is an American citizen, but he's also an Israeli citizen. Fair disclosure: I also hold dual citizenship. In any case, it seems strange to me that anyone who's an Israeli citizen should be treated differently because he's also an American citizen. He's not a tourist here; he's a citizen of the State of Israel. As far as compensation is concerned – I have no idea. I have no expertise on that issue.

31. From the material to which you're exposed, do you think that the accused is the murderer and if so, do you believe his claim that he acted alone at the scene of the crime?

I wouldn't be at all surprised if it's him, but I haven't seen all the material yet. As far as the claim that he was alone – I find that hard to believe. In any case, after reading the file, if I read it, I'll be wiser.

32. In your opinion, how does the State Prosecutor's Office plan to overcome the demand for "something more" for the purpose of conviction after the confessions were extracted by torture (at some level or other)?

They have the confession of A., who says that he planned the event with Ben-Uliel. That's certainly something more. The problem is that this confession was also obtained through torture, and there will be a trial within a trial about that too.

33. What do the Supreme Court justices think about the fact that they are said to have approved torture?

I don't think that they're especially disturbed, but I've never had the opportunity to have coffee with a Supreme Court Justice. Maybe when I turn 50.

That's all we have time for today. Thanks for your great questions.

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