Palestinian arson victims’ family praises verdict; Jewish attacker vows appeal

‘We wish this decision could have come before the crime,’ says uncle, while killer’s wife maintains his innocence: ‘We’re not giving up hope’

Amiram Ben Uliel (L), the suspect in the Duma arson murder in July 2015 where three members of the Dawabshe family were killed, arrives for a court hearing in Lod on June 9, 2020. (Tomer Appelbaum, Haaretz)
Amiram Ben Uliel (L), the suspect in the Duma arson murder in July 2015 where three members of the Dawabshe family were killed, arrives for a court hearing in Lod on June 9, 2020. (Tomer Appelbaum, Haaretz)

Five years after Amiram Ben Uliel killed three members of the Dawabsha family in the West Bank village of Duma, the Lod District Court rendered its verdict on Monday: three life sentences, plus 20 years.

In one of the most brutal acts of Jewish terror in recent years, Ben Uliel killed three members of the Dawabsha family — Saad, Riham, and their 18-month-old son Ali — in an arson attack. Only the couple’s eldest son, Ahmed, survived, despite terrible burns and scarring; he was 5-years-old at the time.

“The truth is, I want him to spend his whole life in prison,” Ahmad’s grandfather, Hussein Dawabsha, told reporters after the hearing.

The family will also receive the maximum compensation for murder — NIS 258,000 ($75,000) — for each family member killed, as well as an additional NIS 250,000 ($58,000) for the attempted murder of Ahmed, according to the State Attorney’s Office.

Ahmad’s uncle Nasser Dawabsha said that he took his nephew, now 10-years-old, to school on Monday in Duma. Ahmed lost an ear in the attack, so he could not wear a mask like the other kids at school.

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

“He began crying, asking us why he isn’t like the other children,” Dawabsha said.

“These are deep, deep wounds, especially for Ahmed. No matter what the court decides, it will not give him his childhood back. It should have been his mother and his father taking him to school today,” Dawabsha concluded, his voice cracking.

Dawabsha said he was satisfied with the court’s decision, but it came too late for his family. No decision, he said, could restore the loss and hardship which the Dawabsha family had undergone since the night of the fire.

“This is the most we could have hoped for from an Israeli court. But we wish this decision could have come before the crime — that the Israeli government would have acted from the beginning. That they wouldn’t have allowed the settlers to come and act with their protection,” said Dawabsha.

“We hope that this sentence acts as a deterrent, that this sends a message to price tag attackers and others who attack Palestinians,” Dawabsha family lawyer Omar Khamaisi told The Times of Israel.

Yael Atzmon, the lead prosecutor in the case, said that she believed that the sentence “sent an important message that terror is terror and whoever carries out an attack from ideological and racist motives will be punished with the full force of law.”

But according to the Yesh Din human rights group, 91% of investigations into cases of violence against Palestinians over the past 15 years were closed without indictments.

“Long years of non-enforcement and failure to deal with the problem have allowed the violence of Amiram Ben Uliel and his ilk to harm innocent people, as they have harmed the Dawabsha family,” Yesh Din director Lior Amihai said in a statement.

Ben-Uliel’s lawyers have said they will appeal his conviction to the Supreme Court.

While Ben Uliel confessed to the attack on several occasions during his interrogation by the Shin Bet security agency, 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.”

“Our problem, of course, is not with the sentence. The main problem is that the court has accepted confessions that were extracted either after torture or under fear of torture in order to convict him,” attorney Yitzhak Bom, from the Honenu legal aid organization, told The Times of Israel.

Hussein Dawabsha (L) sits with his grandson Ahmad, the survivor of the arson attack that killed his parents and 18-month-old brother, in the West Bank village of Duma on May 18, 2020. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Bom further asserted that there were contradictions between the confessions and eyewitnesses at the scene. The defense attempted to introduce new evidence in recent weeks to support that claim, namely an interview with Ahmad Dawabsha by the Al Jazeera TV network in which the boy appeared to suggest that there were at least three attackers, rather than Ben Uriel alone.

The court rejected the argument, stating that 10-year-old Ahmed’s fragmentary statements to a news channel could not be accepted as evidence in a court of law five years after the night of the arson attack.

After exiting the courtroom, Ben-Uliel’s wife, Orian, continued to assert her husband’s innocence.

“The judges did not look for the truth. They sought to convict him by any means necessary. Despite all the evidence that he didn’t do it, they convicted him. But we’re not giving up,” she said in a statement.

Around two dozen rabbis signed an open letter calling for Ben Uliel’s acquittal. The list included some of the biggest names in religious Zionism, including Bet El Chief Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Kiryat Arba Chief Rabbi Dov Lior, and Rabbi Zvi Tau.

“Nobody disputes that Amiram’s confession, the only piece of evidence against him, was extracted from him through the use of torture… That is enough to justify his release,” the letter said.

Only a few parliamentarians commented on the sentencing, all from the Arab Joint List party. Joint List head Ayman Odeh hailed the decision.

“The sentence for the murderers of the Dawabsheh family is partial justice for the murdered and for young [Ahmed], who survived that horrible night. Full justice will occur with the end of the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel,” Odeh said.

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)

Ben-Uliel had a teenage accomplice, whose name is barred from publication as he was a minor at the time of the incident. He is due to be sentenced on Wednesday, after reaching a plea agreement with the State Attorney’s Office last May, in which he admitted to having planned the torching of the Dawabsha home.

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.

In July 2019, the court released him 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.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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