Unsolved murder in West Bank: a case of uneven Israeli justice and its cost

Israel has indicted no one so far in the murder last summer of a Palestinian couple and their son. It fits a pattern of failure seen as helping fuel a wave of attacks.

Josh Mitnick
Mohammed and Rihab Dawabshe weep in their parlor, which is adorned by posters of their son, daughter in law and infant grandson, who were killed by arson attack by Israeli Jewish extremists. After three months with no indictment, they say that Israel doesn't plan to punish the perpetrators. 'If the enemy is your judge, to who should you complain,' said Mohammed, citing an Arabic expression.

At the center of this otherwise idyllic Palestinian village, soot still blackens the entryway of a house where an arson attack this past summer by extremist Israelis took the lives of Saed and Reham Dawabshe and one of their two sons, Ali, an infant.

Months have gone by without any indictments by Israel for the murders, and emotions in Duma continue to smoulder.

“How do you expect me to feel when the killer of my son and grandchild is walking freely?” says Mohammed Dawabshe, as he dabbed at tears in a sitting parlor just a few feet away from the home. “Had the opposite happened, Duma would have been destroyed by the Israelis” to locate the perpetrators.

The three Dawabshe family victims instantly became a symbol of Palestinian helplessness in the face of a terror campaign by vigilante Israelis. Israel’s failure to prosecute the case so far has fanned a sense of insult and inequality before the law that has been a backdrop of a subsequent wave of Palestinian riots, stabbings, and shootings.

At least 16 Israelis and some 90 Palestinians – the majority of them attackers, according to Israel – have been killed in the latest violence, which coincided with a renewed dispute over access to a holy site in Jerusalem. An American Jewish teenager was also among the victims.

On social media, images of the Dawabshe family dead are shared with an Arabic hashtag for “they burned the baby.” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has said that security services know the identity of the Duma attackers, but lack the evidence to issue any charges. The disparity between this response and the usually aggressive manhunts and swift arrests of Palestinian militants by Israeli forces has only enhanced the sense of insult.

Israeli human rights organizations say the Duma case fits a consistent pattern of an Israeli failure to prosecute nationalist crimes against Palestinians – with one group saying only 1 in 50 such cases ends in a conviction – and Israeli security experts acknowledge these failures are a constant motivator toward violence.

“Palestinians are using this as a lightning rod. You have it in posters, graffiti, and newspaper columns,” says Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist based in Amman, Jordan. “It played a lot into the emotions of people, especially young people. They saw the Israelis who were on the side of the settlers, and don’t have the pretense of acting like a controlling power – instead defending the indefensible.”

'No one punishes the settlers'

Frustration over the Duma case has joined a list of other Palestinian grievances over perceived unequal justice meted out by Israel, whether it’s the rising use of home demolitions exclusively against Palestinians, leniency for Israeli officers charged with wrongdoing against Palestinians, or the gradual expansion of Jewish settlements into Palestinian areas.

At a riot Wednesday following the demolition of a militant’s home in a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah, masked stone-throwers also invoked the unfinished justice in the Duma killings as they faced tear gas and stun grenades from Israeli border police.

“How long can we put up with this behavior? They have killed our families in Gaza, in Duma, in the West Bank,” says Jamal Silawi, a university student. “No one punishes the settlers who kill. We must continue to resist.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders say the prime driver of the recent wave of violence is official Palestinian incitement and a refusal to accept Israel’s existence. Experts on Palestinian politics point to allegations over Israel’s handling of the disputed holy sites and the weakening of Palestinian leadership as other drivers.

However Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, in a recent report on the violence, listed “a feeling of nationalist, economic and personal discrimination” as a top motivator.

US voicing its concern

“Netanyahu made three pledges to me at the hospital: to arrest and charge the criminals, to demolish their homes, and compensate the family,” says Nasser Dawabshe, Saed’s brother, who spends half the week in an Israeli hospital with his orphaned nephew. Five-year-old Ahmed is expected to need years of treatment to recover from the burns. “We see now that he lied,” Nasser says, “This is what created the anger in the Palestinian street.”

The unresolved Duma case has become an item of concern for the US government as well: US Ambassador Dan Shapiro has been reminding Israelis repeatedly in public speeches of the importance of bringing the perpetrators to justice. The concern is that the incomplete justice makes Israel harder to defend internationally.

Israeli security officials say the Duma attackers came from one of the unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts in the hilltops near the village. The officials say the attackers were inspired by a religious fundamentalist ideology that called for attacking Palestinians in order to sow chaos that would undermine Israel’s government.

But the Shin Bet has limited intelligence networks among Jewish extremists and has less success in interrogations compared with Palestinians because they must maintain a higher standard of civil rights and civil liberties, says Ben Hartman, police reporter for The Jerusalem Post newspaper. Israeli agents can bribe Palestinian informants with work permits, he says, while Jewish suspects are coached on their right to remain silent.

'Not doing the basics'

An Israeli police spokesperson refused to comment on the case, saying it’s under a court gag order. The Israeli Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Israeli human rights watchdogs say the failure of Israeli legal authorities to effectively investigate ideological crimes against Palestinians is a chronic problem: among about 1,000 such cases over the last 10 years, the indictment rate is 7 percent and the conviction rate is 2 percent, according to Yesh Din, a leading Israeli rights monitor.

“The numbers don’t lie,” says Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the organization. “They are not doing the basics, not checking forensics, not checking up leads, and not checking alibis. They don’t know how to solve these cases because they never really tried, and the perpetrators of the crimes feel they have impunity.”

Back at the Dawabshe family household in Duma, the grandparents wistfully remember mundane normalcy of the evening before the pre-dawn arson changed their lives: plans to buy a new dress; take a day off from work. Now, the family and village are haunted by the image of an infant killed in his crib.

“We are a peaceful village. We have never taught our children to burn,” says grandfather Mohammed. “If the Israelis would punish those that did this, the people might feel some relief from the tensions and the bitterness. But even if they did, the smile on my face will never come back.”

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