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AnalysisThe notion that a few dozen alienated youngsters might succeed in fostering a revolt against the mighty State of Israel sounds ridiculous. Unfortunately, it's all too plausible

Month after fatal firebombing, jury is out on fight against Jewish terror

Op-ed: Defense minister claims jailing suspects without trial has prevented a further wave of grave attacks on Arabs. Dare we believe him?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Alleged head of a Jewish extremist group Meir Ettinger appears in the Magistrate's Court in Nazareth Illit, August 4, 2015. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Alleged head of a Jewish extremist group Meir Ettinger appears in the Magistrate's Court in Nazareth Illit, August 4, 2015. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

A month ago today, in the early hours of Friday, July 31, two masked men smashed windows and threw petrol bombs into the home of the Dawabsha family in the West Bank village of Duma, setting it ablaze. They also scrawled Hebrew graffiti at the site. Ali Dawabsha, age 18 months, was burned to death in the fire. His father Sa’ad died of his wounds a week later. His mother Riham is still hospitalized in serious condition. His 4-year-old brother, Ahmad, is also in the hospital, making a slow recovery and still unaware of the full extent of the tragedy that has befallen him and his family.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Israel’s security establishment alleged that Jewish terrorists were responsible. Media reports quoted security sources saying the attackers had fled on foot in the direction of nearby settlements and outposts. A gag order was then placed on the investigation; it remains in force.

The Israeli political leadership also made plain that it believes Jews were to blame. President Reuven Rivlin despaired that the terrorists had come from “my people.” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan declared that “the signs point to this attack being carried out by Jews. A nation whose children were burned in the Holocaust needs to do a lot of soul-searching if it bred people who burn other human beings.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to “unite against the criminals among our people,” and vowed there would be “zero tolerance” toward such crimes.

In this Friday, July 31, 2015 photo, Palestinians carry the body of one-and-a-half year old boy, Ali Dawabsha, during his funeral in Duma village near the West Bank city of Nablus. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
In this Friday, July 31, 2015 photo, Palestinians carry the body of one-and-a-half year old boy, Ali Dawabsha, during his funeral in Duma village near the West Bank city of Nablus. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

In the days after the attack, in keeping with that pledge, the Israeli government voted to provide the security and legal systems with whatever tools they needed to crack the case and prevent further such killings. For the first time, investigators were empowered to jail Jewish offenders without trial — administrative detention, a measure hitherto reserved for Arab terror suspects.

The suspects

Three alleged extremists have been imprisoned via this tool in the days since: Meir Ettinger, the grandson of the assassinated racist rabbi and banned Knesset member Meir Kahane; Eviatar Slonim; and Moshe Orbach. According to security sources, Ettinger is the leader, or one of the leaders, of a kind of improvised Jewish terrorist underground, several dozen strong, of youths arrayed in small terror cells who are bent on destroying the State of Israel. These youths — many of them high-school dropouts and by no means all settlers — live out in the wild in the West Bank, plotting and carrying out attacks on churches, mosques and Palestinian homes with the interim aim of drastically escalating tensions between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land, and the ultimate goal of bringing down the State of Israel and replacing it with “authentic” Jewish sovereignty.

Meir Ettinger is the alleged leader, or one of the leaders, of an improvised Jewish underground, several dozen strong, of youths arrayed in small terror cells bent on destroying the state

Orbach was found in the possession of, and is reportedly the author of, their instruction manual, entitled “Kingdom of Evil,” a horrifying piece of work that offers detailed advice for “sanctifying God’s name” via attacks on non-Jews, including murder: “Sometimes one gets tired of merely attacking property… and wants to simply set fire to a home with its residents inside… Here we’re talking about arson and maybe attempted murder, which is far graver from the point of view of the Zionists… If you’ve decided to do it, go for it.”

In 2013, Ettinger reportedly wrote a guiding document entitled “The Rebel Manifesto” which calls for the destruction of the Zionist state: “The idea of the rebellion is very simple. Israel has many weak points, many issues which it handles by walking on eggshells so as not to attract attention. What we’re going to do is simply fire up these powder kegs… The aim is to bring down the state, to bring down its structure and its ability to control, and to build a new system.”

Saad and Riham Dawabsha, with baby Ali (Channel 2 screenshot)
Saad and Riham Dawabsha, with baby Ali (Channel 2 screenshot)

The notion that a few dozen alienated youngsters might succeed in fostering a revolt against the mighty State of Israel sounds ridiculous. Except that it doesn’t take a lot to start a firestorm in this part of the world. And their alleged crimes in burning churches and mosques, especially in the past two years, have indeed deeply escalated tensions between Jews and non-Jews between the river and the sea. The murderous attack in Duma — not, incidentally, the first time that a Palestinian home was set alight with its residents sleeping inside — plainly represents a defining, critical test of the Israeli establishment’s capacity to rein in the extremist fringe and prevent a deeper descent into interreligious conflict.

Five-year-old Ahmed Dawabsha lies in his hospital bed at The Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, August 24, 2015 (Eric Cortellessa/Times of Israel)
Five-year-old Ahmed Dawabsha lies in his hospital bed at The Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, August 24, 2015 (Eric Cortellessa/Times of Israel)

Yuval Diskin, a no-nonsense former head of the Shin Bet security service, has sounded like a modern-day Jeremiah in the weeks since the Duma killings, bitterly asserting that his own agency, and the political leadership, have allowed the extremists to flourish for too long to stop them now. He says the Shin Bet never prioritized the fight against Jewish terror, and that the political establishment never had the will to do so either, in part because of its relative indifference to the targeting of Palestinians. Extremism, he asserts, has taken deep root in the West Bank, facilitated by the mainstream leadership’s apathy or even tolerance. “In the ‘State of Judea’ there are different standards, different value systems, different approaches to democracy,” Diskin wrote in a Facebook post after the Duma killings, “and there are two legal systems. One that judges Jews (Israeli law) and one that judges Palestinians (martial law).”

Rivlin didn’t sound much different on the day of the Duma attack. “To my great sorrow, until now it seems we have been lax in our treatment of the phenomenon of Jewish terrorism,” he lamented. “Perhaps we did not internalize that we are faced with a determined and dangerous ideological group, which aims to destroy the fragile bridges which we work so tirelessly to build.”

President Reuven RIvlin speaks at an anti-violence and anti-homophobia ralliy attended by thousands in Jerusalem on August 1, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
President Reuven RIvlin speaks at an anti-violence and anti-homophobia ralliy attended by thousands in Jerusalem on August 1, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The flames of hatred, violence and “false, distorted and twisted beliefs are spreading through the land,” he elaborated at a rally the next day. “These flames, which are consuming all of us, cannot be extinguished with weak condemnations [by politicians]. These flames cannot be extinguished with solidarity rallies… Incitement, ridicule, frivolity, laxity and arrogance cannot extinguish the fire, but only allow it to burn stronger, with fervor, to spread in all directions, and permeate all walks of life,” Rivlin said. “We must be thorough and clear; from the educational system, to those who enforce the law, through to the leadership of the people and the country. We must put out the flames, the incitement, before they destroy us all.”

Tackling Jewish terrorism

Diskin’s successors in the Shin Bet would insist that the fight against the extremists is anything but lost.

The Hebrew phrase 'Long live the king messiah' is 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)
The Hebrew phrase ‘Long live the king messiah’ is 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)

Security sources acknowledge an escalation in serious attacks on Arab targets in the past two years. They describe a shift away from specific “revenge” hate crimes carried out in the aftermath of perceived harm to the settlement enterprise, toward relentless, unprovoked attacks designed to cause chaos. They note too that this extremist fringe — a few dozen, among several hundred so-called “hilltop youth” — has become so radical as to lie beyond the influence of even the most hawkish rabbinical leadership. Its members heed no authority. Some are prepared to kill, to go to jail for life, and to be killed if necessary, in support of a coldly deranged championing of land and perceived religious imperative over life.

The security sources add, furthermore, that the members of these extremist Jewish terror cells are very careful when carrying out their attacks to leave no incriminating evidence, that it is hard to track them because they are so loosely organized, and that almost without exception, when they are arrested, they say nothing under questioning. Marshaling sufficient evidence to indict them is therefore extremely difficult.

A priest inspects the damage caused to the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, in northern Israel, which was set on fire in what police suspect was an arson attack, on June 18, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
A priest inspects the damage caused to the Church of the Multiplication at Tabgha, on the Sea of Galilee, in northern Israel, which was set on fire in an arson attack, on June 18, 2015. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Nonetheless, the security sources insist, the suspects are ultimately being tracked down and reeled in. Five men — they are almost all male — were caught for an arson attack in June at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; three have been indicted and the other two have had limitations placed on their movement. The men who last November vandalized the Max Rayne Hand-to-Hand school — a dual Hebrew and Arabic language school in southern Jerusalem — were caught, tried and jailed. Ettinger, who allegedly played some kind of directing role in the Church of the Loaves attack, is in administrative detention.

The sources say that they now have all the tools, resources and manpower they need to fight Jewish terror, and that it is a 24/7 top priority. They reject the notion that since they didn’t flood nearby settlements with soldiers hunting down suspects in the aftermath of the Duma attack, as they might have done in nearby Palestinian towns and villages following a terror attack on Jews, their approach is somehow more lax and less serious. The appropriate procedures are being utilized, they say.

Had the government acceded earlier to Shin Bet requests for additional tools in fighting Jewish terror, could the Duma killings have been prevented?

They do, however, complain that the punishments meted out to those who are caught do not always fit the crime, and thus do not deter future offenders. The Max Rayne Hand-to-Hand school was set ablaze by Yitzhak Gabai and brothers Nahman and Shlomo Twitto, members of Lehava, a group that works to prevent intermarriage and coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The Twitto brothers pleaded guilty to starting a fire and spray-painting racist messages such as “There is no coexistence with cancer”; “Death to the Arabs”; and “Kahane was right.” They were jailed for two and a half years; the state had sought four and a half. In June the school was attacked again.

Too little, too late?

Because of the gag order, security sources are wary of discussing the Duma firebombing, but they are adamant in alleging it was Jewish terror — “that is where all the evidence points, and there is no evidence to suggest it was not Jews,” I was told.

Defense Minister Moshe Boogie Yaalon speaks to students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2015. (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. (Hadas Parush/Flash90

It is not clear whether they believe that, had they been able to hold Ettinger and others in administrative detention sooner — had the government acceded earlier, that is, to Shin Bet requests for that tool in fighting Jewish terror — the killings could have been prevented. The closest anyone has come to directly connecting the three administrative detainees to the Duma case was in an interview given by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon to Channel 10 ten days ago. Asked whether those who had been taken into custody were tied to the firebombing, Ya’alon replied, “Ultimately, yes, or we wouldn’t have done it.” Administrative detention, he said, “is a drastic step… but we have to protect our democracy.” If those arrests had not been made, Ya’alon went on, “we would have had a series of grave attacks on Arabs. We saw a family burned. I have no doubt that those held in administrative detention are the right people.”

As much as a claim of success, that sounds like an admission of failure. These were individuals feared by the security authorities to be dangerous, allegedly capable of terrible crimes. Yet they were only taken into custody after a new low, a new horror.

Given the security sources’ depiction of the working methods of the Jewish terrorists — the absence of an easy-to-penetrate hierarchy; the way they are organized in hermetic cells of just three to five members; and the savage indifference to life manifested in their alleged guiding ideology — Ya’alon’s assertion that a series of further grave attacks has now been averted would appear to be, at best, dubious and untested.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted on the weekend of the Duma attack that “every society has extremists and murderers on the fringes,” but the test of a society is how “the center, the leadership” deals with that extremism.

A month after the fatal firebombing of the Dawabsha home in Duma, the jury is still out.

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