Grandfather: Verdict will not bring back my family

Jewish extremist convicted of killing 3 Palestinian family members in 2015

Amiram Ben-Uliel also found guilty on 2 counts of attempted murder and 2 of arson in West Bank’s Duma terror attack, acquitted of membership in terror organization

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Amiram Ben-Uliel sits in the Lod District Court on May 18, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Pool Photo via AP)
Amiram Ben-Uliel sits in the Lod District Court on May 18, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Pool Photo via AP)

The Lod District Court on Monday found the primary suspect in the 2015 terrorist firebombing of a Palestinian home guilty of murdering three family members who were sleeping inside.

Amiram Ben-Uliel, a 26-year-old religious extremist from an outpost outside the Shiloh settlement, was convicted of three counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and two counts of arson. The court acquitted the father of one on charges of membership in a terror organization.

The judges wrote in their ruling that they had concluded “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Ben-Uliel hurled the firebomb into the Dawabsha home in the central West Bank village of Duma that burned to death 18-month-old Ali and his parents, Riham and Saad, and seriously injured four-year-old Ahmad.

Ben-Uliel — who had previously been convicted on charges of violating an administrative order barring him from the West Bank and for sparring with security forces during an outpost evacuation — confessed to the attack on several occasions during his interrogation by the Shin Bet security agency, but some of those confessions were thrown out by the court in 2018 after judges determined they had been given either during or immediately after he had undergone enhanced interrogation.

Saad and Riham Dawabsha, with baby Ali. All three died when the Dawabsha home in the West Bank village of Duma was firebombed, by suspected Jewish extremists, on July 31, 2015 (Channel 2 screenshot)

Nonetheless, regarding the remaining confessions, the court ruled Monday that they carried “considerable weight [and] were consistent with the findings at the apartment,” with details too specific to have represented a false confession made by an innocent man.

“This is a clever man, with an extraordinary memory, with strong power and inner strength who stands by his principles and does not ‘tend to please his interrogators,'” the judges wrote.

“The defendant’s ability to reenact the incident, providing unpublicized details, two of which were not even known to the investigators at the time: the color of the vehicle parked at the scene as well as a description of the window of the second home [targeted] and the direction it faced” was convincing, they wrote.

Referring to their decision to acquit Ben-Uliel on charges of membership in a terror organization, the judges wrote that there was no question that the act he had committed had been a terror attack. However, they maintained that there was not enough evidence to prove that it had been carried out in the context of his membership in a terror group, particularly because Ben-Uliel has not been convicted of any other such crimes.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that this was an act of revenge motivated by racist perceptions held by the defendant, even if he wasn’t a member of an organized terrorist infrastructure,” the judges wrote.

A Palestinian police member inspects the damage inside a burned-out house belonging to a key witness to an arson attack last year by Jewish extremists that killed a Palestinian family, in the West Bank village of Duma, after fire broke out in the home in the early hours of March 20, 2016. (AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

The defense had argued that the interrogation methods used by the Shin Bet should have made all of Ben-Uliel’s confessions inadmissible and that its client only admitted to the crime, even well after the enhanced interrogation, because he was convinced that the extreme methods would be applied again if he didn’t comply.

In addition to asserting that the confessions were false, Ben-Uliel’s attorneys have pointed to other holes in the prosecution’s case. They noted the testimony of a witness from Duma who said he saw two suspects running out of the village after firebombing the Dawabsha home. Police also had initially believed there had been two bombers, but after failing to tie a second, younger suspect to the scene, they chose to charge him as an accomplice while maintaining that he had not actively participated in the attack.

The lead police investigator told Channel 13 earlier this year that he still believes two individuals were at the scene that night. The defense also brought the testimony of a graphologist who said the two Hebrew phrases found in graffiti at the scene, “Revenge” and “Long live the King Messiah,” had two distinct handwritings and could not have been spray-painted by the same individual. Ultimately, the court dismissed those arguments.

The judges scheduled a hearing for June 9 ahead of Ben-Uliel’s sentencing.

As one judge quietly read out the verdict in a chamber only half full of journalists due to social distancing restrictions, Ben-Uliel’s wife, Orian, interrupted him, shouting that the court was “convicting an innocent man.”

Amiram Ben-Uliel sits in the Lod District Court on May 18, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

In the four month period in 2015 between the attack and his arrest, Ben-Uliel began studying at a yeshiva belonging to convicted sex-offender rabbi Eliezer Berland’s Shuvu Banim ultra-Orthodox sect. Shortly thereafter, the hilltop youth-turned Haredi Ben-Uliel moved with his wife and baby daughter from an outpost near the Shiloh settlement in the central West Bank to Jerusalem in order to be closer to the Shuvu Bonim community.

Speaking to The Times of Israel immediately after the ruling, Hussein Dawabsha said he was “satisfied by the verdict and that it was “good that the murderer would remain behind bars, but that it will not return” his daughter Riham, son-in-law Sa’ad and eighteen-month-old grandson Ali.

“My grandson is asking every night where his mother is, where his father is, where his brother is. This verdict does not make it any easier to answer him,” said Dawabsha, who has been caring for Ahmad since the attack.

“I hope this ruling serves as deterrence and prevents other terrorists from attacking innocents,” he added, claiming that other accomplices in the attack on his daughter’s family were still roaming free and calling on authorities to bring them to justice as well.

Hussein Dawabsha (L) sits with his grandson Ahmad, the survivor of the arson attack that killed his parents and 18-month-old brother, as they look at images on a phone at their home in the Israeli occupied West Bank village of Duma on May 18, 2020. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

The Dawabshas’ attorney told reporters that while he was satisfied with most of the ruling, he disputed the judges’ conclusion that Ben-Uliel was not a member of a terror group. “The hilltotp youth carry out terror attacks every Monday and Thursday,” he said, referring to young Israeli ultra-nationalists such as Ben-Uliel who establish outposts on West Bank hilltops and are known for carrying out attacks against Palestinians and vandalizing their property.

Addressing reporters outside the courtroom, Ben-Uliel’s attorney Yitzhak Bam from the Honenu legal aid organization said that the verdict had not come as a surprise to him after the court had thrown out previous appeals.

“Amiram was convicted of an act to which he admitted but not acts that he committed. His confession was given during a serious violation of his rights that included torture and we hope that the Supreme Court will overrule this decision,” Bam said, vowing to appeal.

According to the indictment against him, Ben-Uliel and a teen accomplice planned to carry out an attack against Palestinians as revenge for a drive-by shooting days earlier in which Israeli civilian Malachy Rosenfeld was killed.

Hussein Dawbasha (L), his attorney and Nasr Dawabsha speak to reporters at Lod District Court on May 18, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

When the younger accomplice failed to show up on time at the rendezvous point in July 2015, Ben-Uliel decided to carry out the attack on his own, the charge sheet said. He entered the Duma village and sprayed Hebrew graffiti on one home, then hurled Molotov cocktails through the windows of a pair of homes. The first building was empty, but in the second slept the members of the Dawabsha family, who were burned alive in the attack.

The teenage accomplice, whose name is barred from publication as he was a minor at the time of the incident, reached a plea agreement with the State Prosecutor’s Office last May in which he admitted to having planned the torching of the Dawabsha home. The indictment against him was amended to make no mention of the toddler and parents who were killed in the attack.

In October, the Lod District Court ruled that he was a member of a terror organization, tacking the additional charge onto the rap sheet of the now-19-year-old.

Approved by a Lod District Court judge, that agreement saw the teenager confess to conspiring to commit a crime motivated by racism — the same count for which he was charged in January 2016. The indictment was corrected to specify the crime as arson, but not murder.

A Star of David and the Hebrew word ‘Revenge’ are spray-painted on the walls of a Palestinian home which was burned down by arsonists on July 31, 2015 in the Palestinian village of Duma, near Nablus (Zacahria Sadeh/Rabbis for Human Rights)

In July 2019, the court released the defendant to house arrest, less than two months after it threw out several of his confessions because they were extracted under extreme duress by interrogators of the Shin Bet security service.

The prosecution has asked the court not to sentence the accomplice to more than five and a half years in prison. Deducted from the sentence would be the time the teenager already spent behind bars — about two and a half years. The sentencing hearing for the accomplice is scheduled for Thursday.

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