Months after deadly West Bank arson, case makes progress

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli authorities are expected to soon raise charges against Jewish extremists suspected in a July arson attack on a Palestinian home that killed a toddler and his parents — a case that has been unsolved for months and that helped fuel the current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

But the protracted and drawn-out investigation has raised questions as to why the process is taking so long when authorities often swiftly arrest and prosecute Palestinians suspected in attacks on Israelis.

A jarring video that aired this week on Israeli TV showing extremist Jews brandishing rifles and knives during a frenzied wedding party — some stabbing photos of the slain Palestinian toddler — has ratcheted up criticism that authorities have treated rogue Israelis with kid gloves for too long.

The arson attack in the West Bank village of Duma 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 but is still being treated at an Israeli hospital.

The firebombing, carried out under cover of darkness while the family slept, sparked deep soul-searching by Israelis rattled by the horrific attack. It was condemned across the Israeli political spectrum and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged "zero tolerance" in the fight to bring the assailants to justice.

But for months, Palestinians watched angrily as the case remained unsolved, intensifying a feeling of skewed justice in the occupied territory, where suspected Palestinian militants are prosecuted under a separate system of military law that gives them few rights. The arson also touched on Palestinian fears of extremist Jewish West Bank settlers who have attacked Palestinian property with impunity.

"It took them six months to move and do something," Nasir Dawabsheh, Saad Dawabsheh's brother, said of the Israeli investigation. "If the perpetrator was a Palestinian, they would have burned the West Bank to find him the same day."

Palestinians cite the Duma incident as key in igniting the three month-long wave of attacks and clashes roiling the region, saying they are frustrated by years of unchecked settler violence.

Since mid-September, Palestinian attacks have killed 20 Israelis and an American student. At least 126 Palestinians have died by Israeli fire, including 86 said by Israel to be attackers and the rest killed in clashes with Israeli security forces.

Israel says a Palestinian campaign of lies and incitement is to blame for the violence. But the Palestinians say it's the result of a lack of hope from nearly 50 years of Israeli occupation.

Critics say Israel has cultivated a culture of impunity in the West Bank and has a history of failing to prosecute even the most petty of crimes against Palestinians there.

"The system on every level avoids enforcing law on Israeli settlers. Police fail miserably to ever solve these crimes," said Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. She said the Duma incident and the lengthy investigation reflected that unchecked lawlessness.

Israel says it confronts settler violence with as much resolve as it does attacks by Palestinians. Police say a special "nationalistic crimes" unit was created in 2013 and that over the last few months, they have served restraining orders to dozens of extremist Jews, banning them from the West Bank and putting some under house arrest.

The extremists are part of the so-called "hilltop youth," a leaderless group of young people who set up unauthorized outposts, usually a cluster of trailers, on West Bank hilltops — land the Palestinians claim for their hoped-for state.

They are seldom punished. Critics say influential settler rabbis have done little to denounce the youths, and that Israeli leaders have embraced settler activists who support them. Some outposts have even later been legalized as settlements.

After the Duma attack, Israel arrested four suspected Jewish extremists, placing them for six months under "administrative detention" — a contentious policy usually reserved for Palestinian suspects that allows them to be held without charge or trial.

But the four were not necessarily being held in connection with the arson and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has said there wasn't "sufficient evidence" to apprehend any other suspects over the case. A gag order was slapped on the investigation and months went by.

Then, earlier in December officials announced they made significant progress in the case, with fresh arrests and indictments expected soon. But the suspects' lawyers and families accused Israel's internal security agency Shin Bet of using torture to extract false confessions in the face of a lack of evidence.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawyer for one of the suspects, said his client gave a forced confession after interrogators deprived him of sleep and tied him upside down by his feet. Ben-Gvir said he believes the tactics were used because Israel is determined to close the case, but said he didn't think any indictment would hold up in court.

"They broke him," Ben-Gvir said. "This can't be done in a democratic country."

Rights groups say Palestinians under interrogation regularly undergo similar treatment. The Shin Bet said all interrogations are conducted within the scope of the law.

The agency says the young settler activists are part of a fringe group suspected of arson attacks on Palestinian property in order to bring about religious "redemption," extremists who say God, and not Israeli law is sovereign.

One suspect being held is accused of writing a detailed instruction manual on how to set fire to mosques, churches and Palestinian homes. Titled "Kingdom of Evil," it instructs activists to form underground cells committed to "sanctifying God's name" — and with members who know how "to keep silent in interrogations."

The controversial video of sympathizers of the Duma arsonists, aired by Israeli Channel 10 TV on Wednesday, shows a rowdy crowd of skullcap-wearing youths dancing to music with lyrics calling for revenge. They hold photos of the slain Dawabsheh toddler, which they then proceed to stab with their knives. The youths are also seen brandishing an Israeli military-issued rifle and a mock firebomb.

The video, which police are now investigating, sparked outrage among Israeli legislators, many of whom said it showed Israel was failing to rein in extremism. Netanyahu warned that the extremists are a "danger" to Israeli society.

Tal Mimran, a researcher on national security at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, said a lackadaisical attitude toward extremist settlers may have played a role in the protracted police investigation but that there may also have been other issues, such as a lack of physical evidence.

He said that obtaining a confession from Israeli suspects may be challenging for the security forces because the suspects are more familiar with the system and more aware of their legal rights, compared to the Palestinians.

Still, Mimran said the drawn-out investigation could mar Israel's image not only in the eyes of Palestinians but also internationally.

"Every day that passes intensifies the struggle over the legitimacy of Israel and its actions," he said.

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Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.


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