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After Arson Murders, West Bank Village Waits in Vain for Justice

Price Tag Atrocity? Friends and relatives file by Reham Dawabsheh's coffin on September 7. Dawabshesh, her husband ant their 18-month old son died from an arson attack attributed to Israeli Jewish settlers. Image by Getty Images

Over the past month and a half, residents of this tight-knit village in Israeli-occupied territory have oscillated between grief and anxiety.

First came the July 31 death by arson of 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh as the lives of his other family members hung in the balance; then the death of Ali’s father, Saad Dawabsheh, from burns suffered in the same fire. Most recently there was the death of Reham Dawabsheh, Ali’s mother, who succumbed to her wounds from the fire on September 6—one day after her 27th birthday.

The blaze, allegedly set by Israeli Jewish settlers, provoked outrage among the villagers, along with their grief. The words “vengeance” and “Long live the Messiah” were spray painted on the torched Dawabsheh family home, and an empty house nearby was set ablaze as well.

Image by Getty Images

But for all that, one thing the villagers didn’t experience was surprise.

As a long line of relatives filed into the mourning tents to mourn Reham Dawabsheh’s death, her father, Hussein Dawabsheh, told the Forward that the demise of his daughter, son-in-law and grandson — the family’s other son, 4-year-old Ahmad, remains in critical condition from the same arson — was preceded by hundreds of lower-level attacks in recent years.

“Price tag” is the name that Israelis and Palestinians alike have given to the organized movement among some West Bank settlers who vow to exact a “price” on Palestinian properties or people for every Israeli government move to curb the growth of their communities, which are viewed widely as illegal under international law. It’s a movement that visited Duma several times previously, the villagers say, most recently in 2013, when unknown individuals torched cars in the village and scrawled a Star of David near the site. Police investigated the crime in the days following that attack, but no one was ever apprehended.

Now, no one has been charged more than a month-and-a-half after the arsonists took the three Dawabsheh lives.

In 2013, the same year the Duma cars were burned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a special task force to combat settler violence. But human rights activists say that Israel often uses kid gloves when it handles Jewish suspects. According to the Israeli group Yesh Din (Hebrew for “the Law Exists”), since 2005, 85% of criminal complaints from Palestinians about settler violence in the West Bank have had their case files closed because of the police’s inability to locate suspects or find sufficient evidence for indictments.

“I was sure they would find the evidence for Duma, because it’s a high-profile case,” said Ziv Stahl, Yesh Din’s director of research. “But because there is such a poor intelligence infrastructure, it’s not really surprising that they can’t.”

The conviction among Palestinians and among Israeli critics of the occupation that there is a dual system of justice in the West Bank was reinforced by comments reportedly made September 10 by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. Security officials, he told a closed meeting of Likud activists, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, know exactly who committed the arson killings in Duma. But they will not indict the perpetrators because of the need to “protect” intelligence sources.

If true, the perpetrators may be among the three hard-line settlers recently placed under administrative detention as part of a crackdown following the Duma arson.

An eyewitness to the crime reported seeing four men flee the scene toward the settlement of Ma’aleh Ephraim.

The administrative detentions, a draconian measure that denies those jailed a trial or even a public declaration of charges, is usually reserved for Palestinian terrorism suspects. In this case, those detained included Meir Ettinger, grandson of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the radical right-wing politician and émigré from America whose Kach party was outlawed in Israel for racism and incitement.

In a letter to Yaalon and to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and Brig. Gen. Dani Afroni, Omar Khamaisi, a lawyer with the Nazareth-based human rights organization Meezaan, demanded that those believed to be responsible for the arson be identified and brought to justice.

Blaming the West Bank arson attacks of recent years on the Price Tag movement, Khamaisi termed them “a public disaster and an integral part of the daily reality for Palestinians in the West Bank.” So far, his letter has gone unanswered.

Pro-settler Israelis, meanwhile, say that government efforts to rein in the violent fringes of their communities reflect a greater weakness and hypocrisy in Israel. Ettinger, believed to be a leader of the hard line settlers known as “hilltop youth,” described the Israeli crack down as “a terror attack on Judaism” in his blog.

“As the Shin Bet repeats in our ears, ‘Jewish terror, Jewish terror, Jewish terror,’ and at the same time ‘contains’ the firebombs or stones thrown daily by Arabs [at Jews], so grow the numbers of Jews who know that the hands of those in charge of their protection is covered with blood of those murdered,” he wrote.

Many Palestinians say the violence is the result of a long-standing but unofficial policy of leniency in the West Bank that strives to placate and thereby effectively reward settlers rather than confront their extremist elements.

A 2013 report by the state comptroller found that Israel’s civil administration in the West Bank fails to enforce planning laws because of the fear of “stiff opposition” from the settlers. When settlers violate such laws, the report found, authorities forgo criminal prosecutions.

Over the past year, “price taggers” have shifted from vandalizing properties and uprooting Palestinian olive trees to attacks that aim to inflict physical harm, said Udi Levy, chief commander of the task force against West Bank settler violence.

Levy denies claims that his unit and other security forces take the crimes lightly. Thanks to substantial resources they have been given, those under his command have successfully deterred many attacks, he said, and accumulated an “intimate knowledge” of the radical cells of “hilltop youth,” who seek to occupy West Bank hilltops and intimidate the surrounding Palestinian villages.

According to Levy, 70% of the Price Tag perpetrators his unit has arrested in the past two years are minors, some even younger than 14. “Many of [them] are living on these hilltops, disconnected from their families and attracted to the ideology,” Levy told the Forward. He estimated their numbers in the dozens, or as high as about 150. But as the Duma arson made clear, even small groups can inflict great damage.

The mostly young men know the loopholes in the law and the techniques for maintaining silence during an interrogation, but Levy said that one of the greatest challenges in bringing them to justice is that “the courts see them as children.”

In contrast, an Israeli law introduced in July imposes a sentence of up to 20 years in prison for stone throwing by Palestinians, many of whom are youngsters or teenagers. In the case of Palestinian terror attacks, the Israel Defense Forces has responded with house raids, road closures, mass roundups and other methods that critics say are forms of collective punishment.

Nasser Dawabsheh, Saad Dawabsheh’s brother, said that while he and his neighbors have always been peaceful, he fears for the future of this village, where the Dawabsheh family home, still reeking of smoke, has become a sort of pilgrimage site for Palestinians. Many have hung flower wreaths and posters of their own local shahids, or martyrs, on the singed walls. Drawings have also appeared, including one depicting a man, his blue shirtsleeve emblazoned with a large Star of David, using a menorah to set fire to a baby shrouded in a Palestinian flag and wailing in his crib.

“The question of finding these criminals is not only about Palestinians,” Nasser Dawabsheh explained. “They can attack Jews, they can attack Palestinians; it doesn’t matter who.”

Contact Shire Rubin at [email protected].com_

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