A toddler's death and the cycle of revenge
Patrick Martin in the Middle East: On July 31, 18-month-old Ali Saad-Dawabsheh's death in an arson attack in the West Bank – believed to have been carried out by Jewish extremists – galvanized the world's attention. But five months later, no one has been charged and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians are as bad as ever
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After five months I still can recall the smell of the smouldering furnishings in the burned-out bedroom where Riham and Saad Dawabsheh and their 18-month-old son, Ali, were sleeping when a firebomb was thrown through their window. I still can visualize the charred remains of their bed and something like a crib where the child would have been. I still remember how paramedic Yusef Deryeh sat hunched over, against a wall.
He had been the first on the scene shortly after four that morning of July 31. Mr. Deryeh was a veteran of caring for the wounded and sick in this volatile area of the West Bank since before the violent 2000-04 intifada. But of all the things he has seen, what he witnessed that day was the most horrifying.
Relatives who lived next door said Mr. and Ms. Dawabsheh had run from the house screaming as two masked men made their getaway. Four-year-old Ahmad, who appeared to have been sleeping just outside the parents' room, was helped from the house by an uncle, but Ali never emerged.
The death of a young child in such circumstances gathered Israeli and international attention in much the same way as the image of a young refugee boy who drowned trying to reach the safety of Europe's shore. But, more than that, it spurred significant reaction – by Israeli authorities and by Palestinians – that seems only to have perpetuated the cycle of violence between the two communities.
In the village of Duma, that day in July, neighbours tried frantically to douse the flames of the Dawabsheh home, using garden hoses and buckets, while Mr. Deryeh tended to the victims.
The 27-year-old mother was in the worst shape and Mr. Deryeh dispatched her quickly to hospital in Nablus; from there she was flown to Israel but she died five weeks later. Mr. Dawabsheh and Ahmad were taken to a nearby junction from where they too were airlifted to Israeli hospitals. But the father's condition continued to deteriorate, and he died several days later.
Once the blaze was out, but while the burned wood still was steaming, the paramedic ventured carefully inside in search of young Ali. He couldn't find him at first, and told me he had almost given up, hoping that the child had somehow escaped, when he noticed what looked, he said, "like a piece of charcoal with a face." It was all that was left.
A few hours later, as the village laid those remains to rest, a visibly shocked Mr. Deryeh sat alone on the ground. He was not looking to tell his story – I had to gently pry it from him. He was looking to hide from it.
On the wall outside the Dawabsheh house, the arsonists left two spray-painted messages written in Hebrew. "The Messiah will live forever," read one, adorned with a three-pointed crown. The other said simply "Revenge," beneath a crude Star of David.
I asked locals what the "revenge" could be for. Yazid Dawabsheh, a lawyer and relative of the victims, told me of an incident a month earlier outside the nearby Israeli settlement of Shiloh. Malachi Rosenfeld, a 25-year-old Jewish settler, was shot when driving home following a pickup basketball game with friends. He said one of the people in the car told police that the assailants were men in a car with green Palestinian plates. Mr. Rosenfeld died of his wounds the following day.
The lawyer noted that it was exactly 30 days later, at the end of the Jewish period of mourning for Mr. Rosenfeld, that the attack in Duma took place.
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Like the young Israeli men who may have sought to avenge the Rosenfeld killing, the Palestinian men of Duma also cried for vengeance. "With our souls and blood we shall redeem you, martyr," they chanted as Ali's small body, draped in the Palestinian flag, was carried to the cemetery.
The initial response from Israeli officials was encouraging to Palestinians. Everyone, it seemed, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down, expressed remorse.
This was "a reprehensible and horrific act of terrorism in every respect," said Mr. Netanyahu, his use of the word "terrorism" a rare acknowledgment of extreme Israeli behaviour. "The state of Israel takes a strong line against terrorism regardless of who the perpetrators are," he added. He pledged that compensation would be paid to the family, as it is paid to other victims of terror. His Defence Ministry, however, later would rule that such compensation could only be paid to Israeli victims.
President Reuven Rivlin, speaking both in Arabic and in Hebrew, said he felt a sense of shame and a sense of pain "that from my people, there are those who have chosen the path of terrorism and have lost their humanity."
In the most candid admission of any official, Mr. Rivlin said: "To my great sorrow, until now it seems we have been lax in our treatment of the phenomena of Jewish terrorism. Perhaps we did not internalize that we are faced with a determined and dangerous, ideological [Jewish] group, which aims to destroy the fragile bridges which we work so tirelessly to build."
Israeli authorities pledged to catch the perpetrators and vowed to use the same techniques they would employ had it been Palestinians who carried out an attack on an Israeli home – techniques that have included administrative detention in which suspects can be jailed for up to six months without appearing before a court, and other unspoken methods of extracting confessions.
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ROOTS OF CONFLICT
Terror and vengeance have been employed by both sides in the long-running conflict.
In Mandate Palestine during the 1930s and 40s, the Zionist Irgun and Lehi groups, commanded by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, carried out numerous assassinations and attacks on British and other foreign officials as well as on Arab communities. Their intention was to frighten off the foreign officials and terrorize the Arab population. In the 1950s, a radical religious Jewish underground movement known as the Covenant of the Zealots firebombed Israeli butcher shops that sold non-kosher meat and cars that were driven on the Sabbath. In the 1980s, a Jewish underground group known as Terror Against Terror carried out scores of attacks on Palestinians and their property, including the planting of bombs in the cars of the mayors of three major Palestinian cities – one man, the mayor of Nablus, lost both his legs in the blast; another lost one leg.
In response to the Oslo peace process, religious extremist Baruch Goldstein, a disciple of the fanatical U.S. rabbi Meir Kahane, killed 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994, while Yigal Amir, another Kahanist, assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the following year.
Today, the so-called "hilltop youth," the third generation of settler extremists, appear determined to make their parents and grandparents seem meek in comparison.
Fire has been one of this group's most popular weapons.
I've watched and reported on youths from the militant settlement of Yitzhar setting fire to Palestinian olive trees and fields, not far from Duma. I've been in mosques shortly after they've been torched by extremists who left Hebrew messages of "revenge" and "price tag." In 2011, I saw the burned bedroom of a Palestinian home in the outskirts of Hawara, an Arab town right below Yitzhar, into which someone threw a fire bomb. On that occasion, the child that normally would have been asleep there was with his parents in another room.
Duma wasn't the first such attack; it was just the most deadly.
WAVES OF ASSAULTS
Five months after Duma, however, no one has been charged with the Dawabsheh murders, despite the vow by security chiefs that they would use every means necessary to track the perpetrators down and prosecute them.
The police do say they know who committed the attack and they've detained several young people believed to be from settlements around Shiloh. But, in the absence of forensic evidence, they are reportedly trying to extract a confession from at least one of the group, which might be enough to charge and prosecute all of them.
Hamas, the militant Palestinian resistance movement, didn't wait. On Oct. 1, two Hamas members from Nablus ambushed Eitam and Naama Henkin while they were driving to their home in the settlement of Neria, not far from Duma. The couple was shot and killed in front of their four children, who were sitting in the back seat of the family car. The attackers did not touch the youngsters.
JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
The suspects were picked up within hours and the police said they had confessions in a few short days. The accused principal gunman in that case was quoted by Israeli prosecutors as saying the attack was a form of "revenge" for the killing of the Dawabsheh family.
The defendant was quoted in a statement to the court saying he wanted "to make sure the settlers understand that everything they do has a price, so that in the future they'll think a hundred times before doing something against Palestinians."
The revenge attack on the Henkins reminded people of the unsolved Dawabsheh killings and appears to have signalled the start of a wave of unprecedented assaults by individual Palestinians on Jewish Israelis. Since the Henkins' murder, 22 more Israelis have been killed in attacks in which assailants have used knives, scissors, hammers and cars to try to harm Israelis. In a small number of cases, they've used guns. (Two of the Israeli victims were shot accidentally by fellow Israelis trying to stop the attacker.)
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The fear among Israelis is palpable, as is their anger. In self-defence against attackers, as well as in anticipation of violence and in reaction to assaults, Israelis have shot dead more than 100 Palestinians in the weeks since Oct. 1, and the cycle of violence continues.
The perpetrators of the Duma attack, people Israel's own leaders call "terrorists," were allegedly a handful of radical settlers. But the attack displayed the worst excesses of a radical settler fringe that has been able to operate with impunity.
What's happening now is the consequence of that.