Israeli Settler Found Guilty of Murdering Palestinian Family in 2015 Arson

JERUSALEM — An Israeli settler was convicted on Monday of murdering a Palestinian couple and their young son in a racially motivated arson attack in 2015 that enraged Palestinians, drew condemnation from Israeli leaders and prompted investigators to use harsh interrogation measures normally reserved for non-Jewish terrorism suspects.

The attack in the West Bank village of Duma horrified people on both sides of the conflict, with Palestinians saying it revealed the sense of impunity enjoyed by Jewish extremists and Israelis grappling with the laxness and leniency with which their own authorities had responded to violence perpetrated by Israeli citizens.

Amiram Ben-Uliel, 25, was found guilty on Monday of planning and carrying out the firebombing, which mortally wounded Saad and Riham Dawabsheh and killed their 18-month-old son, Ali. Another son, Ahmad, who was 5 at the time, was badly injured but survived.

In Lod, Israel, a three-judge court found Mr. Ben-Uliel guilty of murder, attempted murder, arson and conspiracy to commit a racially motivated crime. Prosecutors said a life sentence was mandatory in premeditated murder cases and that they would ask for additional prison time on the other charges.

The lead prosecutor, Yael Atzmon, hailed the verdict as signaling that “terrorism is terrorism, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators.”

Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel welcomed the verdict, but added that settler violence continued unchecked. The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din reported in December that of more than 1,200 investigations of violence committed by Israeli citizens against Palestinian civilians, only 8 percent had led to indictments.

Mr. Ben-Uliel did not testify, but his lawyers had sought to suppress his confession, saying he had admitted to the murders under duress, after 17 days of interrogation without a lawyer and while subjected to harsh measures that they called “torture.” Other critics of the Shin Bet, the domestic security agency that investigated the case, said those measures included stress positions, tight shackling and sleep deprivation.

In a mini-trial in 2018, the court set aside Mr. Ben-Uliel’s initial confession, citing those pressure tactics. But it ruled admissible his detailed subsequent confessions, including one he made on videotape and another he gave during a police-supervised reconstruction of the crime in Duma.

Prosecutors defended the interrogation methods, which investigators later acknowledged had been “very painful” to Mr. Ben-Uliel, by saying they were necessary to ferret out the activities of a terrorist organization before it committed other violent acts.

They accused Mr. Ben-Uliel of being a member of an anarchic, far-right group known as the Revolt. Many members of the group live in unauthorized settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank and call for fomenting unrest to bring about the collapse of Israeli democracy and replace it with a Jewish kingdom based on the Torah.

In the end, the only count on which Mr. Ben-Uliel was acquitted was that of belonging to a terrorist organization. The court cited insufficient evidence, saying that investigators’ opinions and Mr. Ben-Uliel’s friendship with a leader of the group were not enough to link him to it.

In a 79-page verdict, the court found that Mr. Ben-Uliel had meticulously planned the July 31, 2015, attack, motivated by revenge for a shooting that killed a settler about a month earlier. It quoted him acknowledging that he had crept through an olive grove and bypassed several Palestinian homes because “when the attack is in the heart of the village there is more fear.”

Using 1.5-liter grape juice bottles as Molotov cocktails, the court said, Mr. Ben-Uliel firebombed one house not knowing that it was empty. But in the other, the Dawabshe family lay sleeping.

Neighbors who heard screams rushed to the home and found Saad Dawabshe, 32, writhing on the ground outside, and his wife, Riham, 27, on fire. Ali was already dead.

The court said Mr. Ben-Uliel also spray-painted “Revenge” and “Long Live the Messiah” on the walls of the home in Hebrew.

Witnesses said they saw two masked men watching as the family burned. A teenager, whose name has not been made public because he was a minor at the time of the attack, struck a plea bargain a year ago, admitting he conspired to commit a racially motivated act of arson in exchange for prosecutors’ dropping murder charges.

Honenu, a right-wing legal aid organization that represented Mr. Ben-Uliel, called it a “black day for the state of Israel and its citizens” and said it would appeal. It said the conviction had relied on a confession obtained by torture and that such a confession was “not worth a garlic peel.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a right-wing politician and lawyer who represented the minor defendant in the case, said he opposed the use of torture against Israelis and Palestinians alike. “The goal is to get to the truth,” he told Israeli radio. “I’m outside of a school now, and I could take the pupils, put them in one of those basements and get any result I want.”

Mr. Ben-Uliel, wearing a white knitted skullcap, a surgical mask and a white shirt, sat slumped as the verdict was announced, reading from a small book. His wife, Orian, whose testimony that her husband had never left their bed the night of the murders was deemed unbelievable by the court, denounced the judges after the verdict. “What do you care if an innocent person sits in jail?” she said. “The case is full of holes. You will be remembered as a disgrace forever.”

In a rare statement, the Shin Bet called the Duma attack “a grave crossing of a red line,” calling the verdict “a significant milestone in the battle against Jewish terror.” Noting efforts to “delegitimize its operations” during the trial, the agency said it would continue to pursue its mission and “combat any terror.”

But Saad Dawabsheh’s brother, Nasr, said the verdict was “unjust and insufficient,” saying that Mr. Ben-Uliel should not have been the only person convicted of murder.

“We know that at least two people were involved in the crime of killing Ali, Saad and Riham,” he said by telephone from the courthouse.

Still, he said he hoped Mr. Ben-Uliel’s punishment would be severe.

“We know no court decision will bring Ali, Saad and Rihm back, but a harsh sentence can deter future crimes,” he said.

Ahmad Dawabshe, the sole survivor of the attack, is now 9 years old and lives with his maternal grandfather, his uncle said. He goes to the hospital every four months for laser treatments that are expected to continue for years.

“He still asks, ‘Why me? Why did they burn my family?’” Mr. Dawabshe said. “He saw everything, and he’s still affected by that experience.”

David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem, and Adam Rasgon from Tel Aviv.

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