World & Nation

Arson case in Israel prompts debate about extremism, interrogation techniques


An Israeli right-wing activist holds a placard in front of the Justice Court in Petah Tikva, Israel, during a protest against interrogation methods they say are used by the Israeli intelligence services to interrogate suspected Jewish extremists.

(Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

As Israeli authorities move closer to indicting the suspected killers of a Palestinian family, recent weeks have opened a window into Jewish extremist circles and the legal challenges involved in investigating them.

On Wednesday, state prosecutors notified a court in central Israel that the main suspect in the West Bank arson attack that killed three members of a Palestinian family would be indicted next week and charged with murder.

Also Wednesday, the same court extended by another two weeks the months-long gag order banning publication of details from the investigation and any information that could reveal the suspects’ identities.

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Five months ago, suspected Jewish extremists set fire to the home of the Dawabshe family in the West Bank village of Duma. One son, 18-month-old Ali, died in the fire and his parents succumbed to severe burns several weeks later. That left 4-year-old Ahmed, who was also severely burned, as the only surviving member of the family.

The tragic results of the attack prompted a crackdown on Jewish extremists and Israeli authorities began employing legal measures usually reserved for Palestinians, such as administrative detention of suspects.


A file picture taken on July 31, 2015, shows a man holding a picture of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsha, who died when his family’s house was set on fire in the West Bank village of Duma.

(Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP/Getty Images)

According to relatives and attorneys for several suspects arrested several weeks ago -- after months of fierce criticism that Israeli authorities were lax in solving the deadly attack -- these measures also include extreme interrogation methods amounting to torture.


In recent weeks, families and attorneys have accused the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, of employing such tactics as sleep deprivation, sexual harassment and other abuse, as well as withholding counsel from the detainees, said to include a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen.

The accusations sparked calls from right-wing circles to shut down the designated Shin Bet division that investigates Jewish extremism while prompting a rare statement from the agency itself, denying the use of torture but defending other practices it says are both necessary and legal.

A law passed in 2002 regulates the Shin Bet’s activities and permits “irregular” interrogation methods in cases defined as “ticking bombs,” subject to obtaining permission from legal authorities.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Raz Nizri dismissed torture allegations as “baseless and unfounded” and said the suspects were in sound condition.

Nizri, who visited the detainees earlier this week, said Wednesday they did not complain of torture.

As accusations swirled over Shin Bet practices, Israeli television broadcast over the weekend a video taken at the wedding of an Orthodox Jewish couple, where men danced and chanted in apparent praise of the Duma attack, waving rifles and stabbing a photograph of the Palestinian baby who perished in the fire.

The source of the footage wasn’t immediately clear. It was, however, widely condemned, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling it “disgraceful.”

Several people seen in the video were arrested for incitement, including the groom himself, but a judge ordered them released Wednesday. One, a soldier, is reportedly being questioned by military police for use of his army-issued weapon at the event.


Sobelman is a special correspondent


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