JERUSALEM – An Israeli district court on Monday convicted a Jewish extremist of murder in a 2015 arson attack that killed a Palestinian toddler and his parents, a case that had sent shock waves through Israel and helped fuel months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The court ruled that the Jewish settler Amiram Ben-Uliel hurled firebombs late one night into a West Bank home in July 2015 as a family slept, killing 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh. His mother, Riham, and father, Saad, later died of their wounds. Ali’s 4-year-old brother Ahmad survived.
“This trial won't bring my family back,” Hussein Dawabsheh, the toddler’s grandfather, said outside the courtroom in central Israel. “But I don't want another family to go through the trauma that I have.”
At the time of the arson killing, Israel was dealing with a wave of vigilante-style attacks by suspected Jewish extremists. But the deadly firebombing in the West Bank village of Duma touched a particularly sensitive nerve.
The attack was condemned across the Israeli political spectrum, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged “zero tolerance” in the fight to bring the assailants to justice. Investigators placed several suspects under “administrative detention,” a measure typically reserved for alleged Palestinian militants that allows authorities to hold suspects for months without charge.
“This was an attack with racist motives,” said prosecutor Yael Atzmon. “The court ruled it as a terrorist attack and this sends an important message that terror is terror and the identity of the perpetrators is irrelevant.”
Critics, however, noted that lesser non-deadly attacks, such as firebombings that damaged mosques and churches, had gone unpunished for years. And as the investigation into the Duma attack dragged on, Palestinians complained of a double-standard, where suspected Palestinian militants are quickly rounded up and prosecuted under a military legal system that gives them few rights while Jewish Israelis are protected by the country’s criminal laws.
Nasser Dawabsheh, the toddler's uncle, said he was convinced that others were also involved in the crime.
“If it was a Palestinian, they would have arrested every one he talked to and demolished his house and convicted him in a very short time,” he said. “We are not relieved because we know that other criminals are out of jail.”
Ben-Uliel’s lawyers, however, claimed their client was severely tortured and that was how his confession was exacted. They did not offer evidence for their claim but said they were not surprised by the verdict and would appeal. There was no immediate word on when the sentencing would take place.
“We hope that the Supreme Court will overturn the judgment," said Yitzhak Baum, one of his lawyers.
The Shin Bet internal security service had said Ben-Uliel confessed to planning and carrying out the attack, and that two others were accessories. It said he claimed the arson was in retaliation for the killing of an Israeli by Palestinians a month earlier.
Ben-Uliel belonged to a movement known as the “Hilltop Youth,” a leaderless group of young people who set up unauthorized outposts, usually clusters of trailers, on West Bank hilltops — land the Palestinians claim for their hoped-for state.
As the judges walked into the court, the 25-year-old Ben-Uliel sat slouched in the dock, a large white skullcap on his head and blue mask on his face, reading what looked to be a biblical text. He was exonerated of the charge of belonging to a terrorist organization.