JERUSALEM—Israel on Sunday charged two Jewish extremists in an arson attack that killed a Palestinian toddler and his parents last July — culminating a drawn-out investigation into a case that has helped fuel months of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The indictments came as Israel said it had broken up a ring of Jewish extremists wanted in a series of attacks on Palestinian and Christian targets. While Israel’s prime minister trumpeted the arrests as a victory for law and order, the charges drew criticism from Palestinians, who said they were too little and too late, and from the suspects’ relatives, who claimed their loved ones had been tortured by Israeli interrogators.
While Israel has been dealing with a wave of vigilante-style attacks by suspected Jewish extremists in recent years, the deadly July 31 firebombing in the West Bank village of Duma sparked soul-searching across the nation. The attack killed 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh, while his mother, Riham, and father, Saad, later died of their wounds. Ali’s 4-year-old brother Ahmad survived and remains in an Israeli hospital.
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 draconian measure typically reserved for Palestinian militants that allows authorities to hold suspects for months without charge.
“Enforcing the law is the life’s breath of democracy, of the rule of law. We are not restricting it to one sector and we are not focusing on only one sector,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday.
But critics have 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. At one point, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said there were difficulties in prosecuting because of lack of evidence.
When a wave of Palestinian attacks erupted last fall, many Palestinians pointed to the unsolved Duma attack as one of the main sources of frustration motivating attackers.
In Sunday’s indictment, Amiram Ben-Uliel, a 21-year-old West Bank settler, was charged with murder. The Shin Bet internal security service said Ben-Uliel had confessed to planning and carrying out the attack, and said a minor was charged as an accessory. It said the arson was in retaliation for the killing of an Israeli by Palestinians a month earlier.
Yinon Reuveni, 20, and another minor were charged for other violence against Palestinians, including setting fires to two of the Holy Land’s most famous churches — the Dormition Abbey, a Benedictine monastery located just outside Jerusalem’s Old City, and the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. All four were charged with belonging to a terrorist organization. Another 23 were implicated in attacks, it said.
In a statement, the Shin Bet said it had thwarted a “Jewish terror organization” that dreamed of overthrowing the government and establishing a religious theocracy that would be headed by a king, rebuild the biblical Jewish Temple and expel non-Jews.
It quoted what it said was a document confiscated from an activist that said killing non-Jews who refuse to leave the land, including women and children, is permissible. “If you want to strike a blow to the damned,” it said, setting a house on fire “on top of those inside” is an effective tactic.
The statement was not clear whether the other suspects had yet been officially charged. One of the men named in the statement, Meir Ettinger, a grandson of the late ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, has been held in administrative detention since August.
Members of the Dawabshe family praised the indictments but said Israel must do more.
“You say that this a democratic state and I want justice. Catch the rest of them,” said Hussein Dawabshe, the toddler’s grandfather. “It is very good that they caught (the two). It’s a lead. They now need to follow the lead all the way through.”
Relatives of the suspects, meanwhile, accused the Shin Bet of torture. “The confession … was extracted with force and beatings using methods that remind of the inquisition,” said Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawyer representing the two arson suspects.
The Shin Bet has said that its tactics are all within the scope of the law, and the nation’s leaders have backed the agency against the charges.
The extremists are part of 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.
Dvir Kariv, a recently retired Shin Bet official who tracked Jewish extremists for over two decades, described the hilltop youths as a small but extremely dangerous group because of their anti-democratic views. “They group believes that through violence they will succeed in turning this country into a theocracy,” he said.
He said these activists reject even the country’s most hard-line politicians as being too soft, and that even the most radical West Bank rabbis wield no control over them. He estimated the “violent hardcore” at about 100 activists, and a “second circle” of a few hundred others.
He said prosecuting the Duma activists would send a powerful message and weaken the extremists. “It definitely has an important influence,” he said.
Last month Israeli police made arrests after a video emerged of extremists at a wedding at which guests can be seen celebrating the Duma attack.
The Yesha council, an umbrella group of West Bank settlements, commended Sunday’s indictment and said the suspects do not represent it.
“It is now clear that these acts were perpetrated by a fringe group of anarchists bent on destroying the state of Israel and the freedom and justice that it represents,” it said in a statement.
In the past three months of violence, Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians and soldiers have killed 21 Israelis, mostly in stabbings, shootings and car-ramming attacks. That figure does not include two Israelis killed Friday, in a shooting attack on a Tel Aviv restaurant. An Arab man who remains on the loose is the primary suspect, though a motive hasn’t officially been determined yet.
During that time, at least 131 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, 90 of them identified by Israel as assailants. The rest died in clashes with security forces.
Israel says the violence is being fanned by a Palestinian campaign of incitement. The Palestinians say it is rooted in frustrations stemming from nearly five decades of Israeli occupation.
The violence continued Sunday as a female Israeli soldier was shot in the West Bank city of Hebron, the military said. She was moderately wounded and troops were searching for the shooter. A few hours later, also in Hebron, the military said another soldier was shot and wounded.