Police Say if New Info on Rape of 7-year-old Not Verified, Charges Could Be Dropped

Israeli army and police announce the investigation will be reopened in the 'borderline case,' family members of the accused 'fear for their lives' ■ Judge remands Palestinian accused in case for six additional days

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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The victim's school, where Qatusa worked as a janitor in Mateh Binyamin in the West Bank, June 18, 2019.
The victim's school, where Qatusa worked as a janitor in Mateh Binyamin in the West Bank, June 18, 2019. Credit: Gil Cohen Magen
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

A hearing to release a Palestinian accused of raping a 7-year-old girl is taking place at the Ofer Military Court on Wednesday at the request of his attorney Nashaf Darwish, after additional uncertainties arose in the case.

The hearing is being held behind closed doors after a petition by Haaretz to allow press to attend was rejected. The prosecution asked to postpone the hearing and to extend the suspect's remand by ten days so that further investigation may be completed. The judge ultimately extended the suspect's arrest by six days, until June 25.

Mahmoud Qatusa, of Deir Qadis, was charged Monday with the kidnapping and rape of the Israeli girl, whom he met at the West Bank school where he worked as a janitor.

Police said on Wednesday it obtained new information from welfare sources which is currently being examined if verified. If found to be true, police claim it would significantly bolster the case against Qatusa. A reverse scenario could have the entire case reexamined and perhaps annulled completely.

However, the Military Advocate General's Office believes that even without additional inquiry, a chance remains for Qatusa's conviction.

During the hearing, police admitted mistakes were made during the investigation, but emphasized the military advocate general had accompanied it from the very beginning. 

Police claimed the rape took place two months before a complaint was filed, during which time the incident was known about in the community the child's family belongs to.

According to his attorney, Nashef Darwish, Qatusa began to cry during the hearing and "Said what any person in his position would say. He told the police: 'What did you do up until now throughout all these days in which I was in detention?'"

The indictment against Qatusa alleges that he developed a relationship with the child over an extended period, engaging her in conversation and giving her candy. Qatusa denies the charges, but people involved in the investigation said he was found to have lied on a polygraph test.

He has spent 49 days in Nitzan Prison, where he has expressed fears that other prisoners will harm him. According to a West Bank settler who is aiding him, Qatusa was recently transferred to a separate wing.  

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On Tuesday, the Israel Police and the Israel Defense Forces announced that the investigation will be reopened and transferred to the central unit in the Jerusalem District, who will complete the investigation due to evidential difficulties. The decision was made after new information came to light after the case was publicized, according to which Kosta may be involved in a separate criminal case.

The central unit's further steps are expected to focus on attempting to identify the friends of the accused who, according to the indictment, held down the child during the assault. The Shin Bet will be asked to join the investigation, but will need the approval of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to get involved.

Mahmoud Qatusa's family told Haaretz that they fear for their lives. His brother Anwar Qatusa said that the family's children cannot sleep at night out of fear from the threats they received.

"We're afraid that they'll do to us what they did to the Dawabsheh family," he said, referring to the 2015 arson slayings of three members of the Palestinian family, who were killed by Jews following the murder of three Jewish teens. "They erased the name of my brother without checking if he's actually guilty."  

He added that statements on the case by Netanyahu and MK Avigdor Lieberman have brought chaos into the family's home. "Suddenly they want to tear down our house. On what grounds? My brother was an English teacher for years in the nearby village, he worked with kids, ask everyone here, no one believes that he did it," he said.

"Who would do something like that to a 7-year-old girl?"  He added, "There is not a single sign that my brother did this terrible act."

Military Advocate General Sharon Afek and head of the police's investigation department Gadi Siso met Tuesday with State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan and reexamined the case's findings. Their appraisal is that it represents a "borderline case," and requires significant investigative steps. If the probe is not extended and these steps are not taken, the case may not stand.

The case has been plagued with complications. Also on Tuesday, sources familiar with the investigation told Haaretz that the Israel Police did not send a pair of children's underpants that were found near the apartment where the alleged rape took place for forensic examination.

The girl told investigators that the underpants belonged to her, and had they been examined, police could have added them to evidence materials in the probe. Such an examination could also have helped police trace the DNA of the suspect, the sources added.

In addition, the child interrogator who obtained the testimony from the girl has said that the testimony was "weak and lacking," and that she could not determine whether the child spoke honestly, Investigation materials show. The interrogator did acknowledge that the child is very young, and may also suffer from "other conflicts that are common among small children who suffered sexual assault."

A source familiar with the investigation confirmed to Haaretz that the girl only saw a doctor at a local clinic five days after she told her parents that she suffered sexual assault, and was not examined by a doctor working with the courts. The source said that in such cases, doctors carry out the examination even if several days or weeks have lapsed since the attack. The source also noted that findings from an attack can still be traced within such a time frame.