Amiram Ben-Uliel, who was charged Sunday with three counts of murder in connection with last July’s arson attack in Duma, was a familiar figure in the West Bank. Until now, though, he had never been arrested on suspicion of involvement in serious violent activities.
Born in July 1994, he is originally from Karmei Zur, a settlement north of Hebron. He is the eldest son of Rabbi Reuven Ben-Uliel, who is identified with mainstream religious Zionism and also serves as the rabbi for Mechina Nokdim, a preparatory program for religious youths entering the army.
The story of Amiram Ben-Uliel is similar to that of other young Jewish extremists in the West Bank (known in Israel as “hilltop youth”). Despite coming from a stable, functional family, he left school following academic difficulties and gravitated toward extremism. After experiencing a few minor scrapes with the law, his views became ever more radical and his connection with his family became more distant.
At first, he frequented the small West Bank outpost of Ramat Migron, which was established by settler leader Daniella Weiss near the larger outpost of Migron. The outpost was built in protest at the intention of Migron residents to evacuate their outpost voluntarily.
Ramat Migron attracted extremists, and it was here that Ben-Uliel met Meir Ettinger – grandson of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the outlawed Kach movement.
Ben-Uliel and Ettinger were also active in a group seeking to establish a Jewish presence in Nablus and Jericho. They were documented praying at Joseph’s Tomb outside Nablus, having reached the site in the dead of night without the necessary permission from the Israel Defense Forces.
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After Ramat Migron was dismantled a few years ago, Ben-Uliel frequented various other settlements and outposts, including Maoz Esther and Itamar, as well as Baladim and Geulat Tzion.
Despite his long involvement with Jewish extremism, Ben-Uliel had never been investigated by the Shin Bet security service, and his criminal record remained relatively light compared with others previously implicated in the Duma case. However, one criminal file on Ben-Uliel gave a hint of the direction his views might take: He admitted he would not comply with limitations imposed on him by the court, since he did not recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
Two years ago, Ben-Uliel married Orian Nizri, who had also become associated with Jewish extremists. She was known for her radicalism – one Purim, she dressed up as Eden Natan-Zada, the Israeli who killed four Arabs during a shooting spree in Shfaram 10 years ago. At one point, she had no less than 10 indictments against her, some involving offenses allegedly committed against Palestinians, some against the police and others of allegedly spitting on Christian clergy in the Old City of Jerusalem. Only the couple’s parents attended their wedding.
Prior to the firebombing of the Dawabsheh home in Duma – in which three members of the family, including 18-month-old Ali, were killed and the remaining child was badly burned – Ben-Uliel lived on a bus in the Adei Ad outpost, on a hilltop that overlooks Duma. After the murders, Ben-Uliel and his wife and 1-year-old daughter moved to Jerusalem.
They told friends they had embraced the Breslov strain of Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy, and viewed themselves as followers of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who had headed the Shuvu Bonim yeshiva in Jerusalem before fleeing to the Netherlands after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him.
Orian Ben-Uliel began wrapping herself in shawls for reasons of modesty, as is the practice among groups of extremely ultra-Orthodox women. Amiram, meanwhile, began studying at a yeshiva for married students in Jerusalem, where he was arrested on December 1.
Friends and acquaintances were surprised to hear that Ben-Uliel had broken under interrogation, and that he had confessed and performed a reenactment of the crime in Duma. “Amiram is strong-minded. The torture there must have been so severe that anyone would break,” one of his close friends told Haaretz, adding that Ben-Uliel’s unnamed juvenile codefendant – who faces an accessory to murder charge – had not been so strong.
On Sunday morning, Ben-Uliel’s parents issued a statement saying they believed in their son’s innocence and that his confession had been extracted through torture. Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, the former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, also issued a statement. “I am the rabbi of ‘Ruvi’ Ben-Uliel, the father of Amiram,” he said. “I held the babies at the family’s circumcisions. The father is the salt of the earth, but sometimes rabbis’ sons kick in all directions, acting contrary to their fathers,” he added.