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A troubling trilogy: Law enforcement in Israel, Part II

No discussion of the ailments afflicting Israel’s legal establishment can be undertaken without referring to the trials of Amiram Ben-Uliel and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Amiram Ben-Uliel, the main suspect in the July 2015 Duma arson murders in which three members of the Dawabshe family were killed, arrives at the Lod District Court in central Israel to hear his verdict, May 18, 2020. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/POOL.
Amiram Ben-Uliel, the main suspect in the July 2015 Duma arson murders in which three members of the Dawabshe family were killed, arrives at the Lod District Court in central Israel to hear his verdict, May 18, 2020. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/POOL.
Martin Sherman
Martin Sherman

This is a black day for the state of Israel … A day on which an Israeli court set its hand to convicting a man whose innocence cries out to the heavens—The defense team, after the conviction of Amiram Ben-Uliel for murder in the Duma arson case, May 18, 2020.

This is the second in a three-part series on the grave dysfunctionality of the Israeli law enforcement apparatus. Part I focused on the disregard of the law by the courts. Part II will turn attention to the disregard of evidence.

Duma, Dawabshe and the presumption of guilt

The hearing of the appeal in the Supreme Court by Amiram Ben-Uliel against his conviction for the deaths of the Dawabshe family—who died when their house, in the village of Duma, was torched in mid-2015—has once again propelled the tragic incident into the headlines.

What has also piqued media interest in the case is the participation of the prominent left-wing human-rights lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, in the defense team. As a rule, Feldman usually defends Palestinian Arabs and left-wing causes.

Accordingly, his involvement in the defense of a member of the radical “hilltop youth,” a settler group perceived to be on the extreme right, is surprising, to say the least, and adds to the sense of skepticism as to the validity of the verdict. (Some have suggested that Feldman has a vested interest in the acquittal of Ben-Uliel, which he might be able to use to overturn convictions of previous offenders he represented.)

As will be recalled, in July 2015, the Dawabshe family’s home was gutted after being attacked with Molotov cocktails. An 18-month-old infant was killed, together with his parents while his four-year-old brother suffered severe burns. Hebrew graffiti on the walls of the charred house led to the conclusion that Jews—i.e. Jewish settlers—were responsible for the arson and the deaths.

Towards the end of 2015, Ben-Uliel was arrested. For almost 20 days he denied any involvement in the deaths of the Dawabshe family. However, refused access to a lawyer and after being subjected to harsh interrogation (a.k.a. torture), he confessed to carrying out the arson.

In Jan. 2016, Ben-Uliel was indicted for the deadly attack based on his coerced confession and convicted in May 2020. He was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences (and 20 months for attempted murder and arson). Significantly, he was acquitted of membership in a terrorist group.

Duma, Dawabshe and the presumption of guilt (cont.)

The troubling aspect of the conviction is that Ben-Uliel’s confession, on which it is based, diverges sharply from the evidence provided by eyewitnesses, and from testimony given during the trial.

Thus, while Ben-Uliel told his interrogators that he perpetrated the attack on his own, according to eyewitnesses, at least two individuals were involved in the arson. According to The New York Times: “Two witnesses said they saw two masked men outside the house watching as the family burned … The hardest thing for me, was that there were two burning people on the ground, and two people were just standing over them,” said a neighbor, Ibrahim Dawabsheh, who, like many in this Palestinian village, shared a common last name. “They didn’t even care that the child was still crying inside.”

Moreover, according to Ben-Uliel, he walked to the village, infiltrated it and exited it on foot. However, eyewitnesses attested that the attackers fled the scene in a vehicle.

In addition, Duma is a village that has been plagued by numerous cases of arson, with houses being burned down, both before and after the incident for which Ben-Uliel was convicted. In none of the other cases was there any hint that Jews were involved.

Indeed, as mentioned, the only indication that led to the assumption that the perpetrators of the 2015 Dawabshe arson were Jewish, was a couple of graffiti slogans spray-painted at the scene of the fire. Experts who examined the lettering testified that the two slogans were not written by the same person—which again is inconsistent with Ben-Uliel’s “confession” that he acted alone.

The “ticking bomb” trick

The use of torture in this case is also perturbing. Indeed, as Ben-Uliel’s legal team alleged, the authorization for the use of “enhanced interrogation” by then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein lacked proper legal grounds and, hence, was illegal.

After all, the only legal grounds for the use of “enhanced interrogation” is to prevent an impending “ticking bomb” terror attack. But in the Duma case, the “ticking bomb” claim rings decidedly hollow in light of the fact that Ben-Uliel remained un-apprehended for around six months, during which he never engaged in—and was never accused of engaging in—any other terror-affiliated activity.

This, together with the fact that he was acquitted of belonging to any terror organization, leaves concerned citizens to ponder over just what “bomb”—if at all— was “ticking” anywhere outside the interrogators’ unbending resolve to bring about a conviction.

After all, as Feldman states, but for the torture, Ben-Uliel would have been acquitted!

So what we have is a Jewish citizen, convicted of brutal murder, despite the fact that:

  • His confession was extracted from him by “enhanced interrogation” (aka infliction of physical pain);
  • His confession contradicted all eyewitness evidence at the scene;
  • He was denied access to legal counsel for an extended period during his interrogation;
  • Before and after his alleged crime, numerous similar attacks were repeatedly perpetrated; and
  • All reasonable doubt and alternative accounts of the event were totally disregarded in assigning his guilt.

Clearly, in any other country, such a case of blatant anti-Jewish bias would be expected to elicit dismayed outrage and virulent protest from Israel as the Jewish nation-state, whose very raison d’être is, largely, to shield Jews from precisely such Judeophobic prejudice and prevent such flagrant cases of anti-Jewish abuse from taking place.

A choreographed coup with the law as a prop?

Of course, no discussion of the ailments afflicting Israel’s legal establishment can be undertaken without referring to the trial of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For it embodies virtually every procedural and substantive lacuna conceivable—from invented infractions to selective prosecution, from extortion of witnesses to illicit leaks detrimental to the defendant.

Indeed, it is difficult for anyone who is not a devout Bibi-phobe to avoid concluding that the entire process of investigation and indictment is little more than a carefully (read “cunningly”) choreographed coup using (read “misusing”) the law as a prop. In fact, even questions as to the legality of the very decision to initiate the investigation against Netanyahu have been raised.

In this regard, Clause 17 (a) of Basic Law: The Government stipulates: “Criminal proceedings shall not be commenced against the prime minister save with the agreement of the attorney general.” Without such authorization, any investigation against a prime minister has no legal basis.

When Netanyahu’s legal team demanded to see confirmation that such agreement had indeed been given, the prosecution was unable to produce any corroborating document, claiming that the law did not require such authorization to be given in writing and was, in fact, given orally and recorded in the prosecution’s internal correspondence.

It is true that the law does not explicitly call for written authorization by the attorney general. But in the case of an unprecedented and sensational investigation involving the longest-serving prime minister in the nation’s history and easily the most popular politician in the country, it is hardly unreasonable to expect that the authorization of such a momentous decision would be carefully documented.

The fact that this was not the case, together with the prosecution’s marked reluctance in producing any evidence that such authorization was given, cannot but help generate grave skepticism as to the authenticity of the charges brought against Netanyahu and the motivation behind them.

(Coming soon: “Part III—Invented infractions”)

Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (

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