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The arrest of a Jewish settler, who has been charged with burning to death three Palestinians including an 18-month-old infant in the West Bank village of Duma in July 2014, is tremendously disturbing in many ways.

First and foremost of course is the confirmation of the long-held assumption that this heinous crime was committed by an Israeli. Amiram Ben-Uliel, aged 21, has confessed to the attack and apparently re-enacted it for investigators, according to Israeli media. Another Israeli youth, who has not been named because he is a minor, helped plan the arson attack but did not carry it out and has been charged as an accessory. The attack shows that there is an element within the settler movement that is willing to use violence against Palestinians – and possibly also against Israelis. It shows that the threats issued daily against Israeli officials from President Rivlin down and against anyone whose beliefs anger the extreme right should be taken very seriously.

This attack shocked the world. A firebomb was tossed through the window of the home of Sa’ad and Raham Dawabsheh. The blaze, which spread quickly through the house, killed18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh immediately. The parents died several weeks later in the hospital. Another child, four-year-old Ahmed, was the only member of the family to survive, though he too was horribly burned.

We cannot view this attack as an isolated act of violence by deranged individuals unrepresentative of their community. As we saw recently in the shocking video of Orthodox youths at a Jerusalem wedding in early December, who were filmed dancing with guns and knives and stabbing a photo of Ali Dawabsheh, hatred of Palestinians is deeply ingrained in the settler movement and among a disturbingly wide swathe of Israeli society. The continuous stream of “Price Tag” vandalism by settlers is part of the same mindset. There have been literally hundreds of such attacks in recent years including the torching of churches and mosques, the uprooting of olive groves and the daubing of offensive graffiti on Palestinians property.

As Chaim Levinson wrote recently in Haaretz, “ The wedding video was a good illustration of the levels of extremism and hatred of Arabs among the extreme right. The participants in the wedding are good friends of the detainees in the affair, and it’s probable that had the detainees not been under arrest at the time they would also have been participating.”

Even the right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom, which is financed by billionaire Sheldon Adelson, acknowledged a serious problem in Israeli society. “Despite the testimony and confessions, despite the wedding film – these terror operatives are still getting significant support from wide elements of the public,” wrote the newspaper’s Yoav Limor.

A second very disturbing aspect of the case is that the Shin Bet security service allegedly used extreme physical measures to extract confessions from Ben-Uliel and his accomplice. Haaretz reported that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein “personally approved the torture of the Jewish suspects” after being briefed by police officers that the investigation into the arson attack was not progressing. The Justice Ministry declined to deny this report, saying only that “the decisions regarding the interrogations were made by the head of the Shin Bet, in terms of his authority, with the oversight and accompaniment of the most senior officials in the Justice Ministry, headed by the attorney general.”

Of course, such extreme measures are often used against Palestinians and few in Israel, with the honorable exceptions apart of some human and civil rights organizations, make much of a fuss. Said human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, “When the Israeli human rights community was fiercely fighting to criminalize torture, as international law demands, the right would not join. I can only hope the Israeli right will now join initiatives to outlaw any type of torture and degrading and inhumane treatment.”

The use of torture violates a 1984 United Nations convention signed by 158 nations including Israel. An absolute ban on torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment has become accepted as a bedrock principle of international law and an essential human right. As we have seen in the United States, information gathered through torture is often tainted – as well as being legally inadmissible. Torture is morally degrading to the torturer as well as the victim.

The unfortunate consequence of Israel’s alleged use of torture, if it is confirmed in this case, is that the trial of these perpetrators will be dominated by whether their confessions are admissible and not by the crime itself. We are likely to see alleged murderers depicted as victims – which will only deepen the rift in Israeli society and make it more difficult to root out such horrible violence and hatred from its midst.

In almost every way, this is a tragic story and there are unlikely to be any happy endings.

See also:

Condemnation Is Not Enough, July 31, 2015