During the wee hours of July 31, 2015, someone tossed Molotov cocktails into the home of Saad and Reham Dawabsheh in the Samarian Arab village of Duma, claiming their lives and that of an 18-month-old baby boy. A four-year-old son survived.
Hebrew graffiti scrawled on the home’s exterior walls prompted many politicians, including President Ruvi Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, to accuse Jews of the crime and to demand quick justice.
Authorities quickly zeroed in on “hilltop youth” — an eclectic group of teenagers who have in the past carried out “price tag” attacks against Arabs to avenge Palestinian terror.
One such youth, Amiram Ben-Uliel, was indicted in January 2016 for the murders. At the Shin Bet’s request, all hearings have been kept secret. No verdict has been issued.
“E,” another hilltop youth, has been in custody just as long. The Shin Bet accuses E of being an accessory to the planning of the operation. Because he was a juvenile, 16 and a half, at the time, the Israeli press remains under a gag order preventing news outlets from mentioning his name or identifying his family.
Now E’s case is back in the news. The Lod District Court on Thursday will convene in what could be the final stage of a pre-trial proceeding to determine if E, a dual US-Israeli citizen, will stand trial, or even go free.
I recently interviewed E’s parents. E’s father was born in Long Island, lived in North Jersey, and made aliyah in 1969. He is rabbi of a community in Samaria — near Kfar Saba — home to many professionals who commute to Tel Aviv and Ra’anana. E’s mother was born in Israel. Her parents are Australian olim whom she described as Anglo-chareidi.
E learned in two yeshivah high schools but struggled with ADHD. Described by his parents as a warm person who always befriended less popular kids, he found his identity among the hilltop youth.
“We worried about him,” said his mother. “We were adamant that he maintain a chavrusa. We had a lot of conversations where we shared our feelings. We would have preferred he stick to yeshivah, but as parents, you have to grow with who the child is.”
E’s parents also sought help through Menifa, a nonprofit that provides youth with personalized educational plans and emotional guidance.
“He was involved in constructive activities like agriculture and shepherding,” his father added. “We felt comfortable with that and were looking forward to him maturing, and his ADHD settling down.”
Then came Duma.
Where was E on the night of July 31, 2015, I ask?
“That’s the million-dollar question that we don’t really don’t have the answer for,” his mother said. “He said he fell asleep in a cave on one of the hilltops.”
The Shin Bet agrees E was not in Duma and that he was probably asleep when the arson took place. The theory goes that his co-conspirators couldn’t rouse him.
“That makes no sense,” his mother said. “If you plan something like this as the Shin Bet are accusing him, you wake him up. You don’t say, ‘Poor little boy, I’m going to let him sleep.’ ”
After E spent three months under house arrest, with no break in the case, the Shin Bet requested approval from then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein to use coercive interrogation techniques. That kind of permission is normally granted only when authorities believe the suspect is a “ticking time bomb,” someone who has direct knowledge of an imminent terror attack.
Adi Kedar, one of E’s lawyers, has told the court in prior hearings that the request for coercive techniques was groundless: “He had already spent three and a half months under house arrest, under wiretap, so how could he develop into an imminent threat under such conditions?”
While the Shin Bet has used harsh interrogation methods to thwart a sizable percentage of terrorist attacks aimed at Israelis, there are checks and balances on the practice. Israel’s Justice Ministry maintains a unit that investigates complaints of abuse. An NGO called the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel says more than 1,100 complaints have been filed since 2000, alleging misconduct and brutality by Shin Bet interrogators.
E’s initial interrogation began in December 2015. Confined for 21 days to a small, unheated concrete cell and deprived of sleep, he was subjected to severe physical, psychological, and verbal abuse, including ten-hour interrogation sessions with his hands and feet cuffed to his chair. Finally, E broke, and confessed to being one of the planners of the Duma attack.
E’s lawyers note that under Israeli law, confessions obtained under such duress are unacceptable in court. The Shin Bet contends E confessed during a “time-out” in between interrogations. His parents say his tormentors were walking in and out of the room when police recorded his confession.
More than two years have passed. E is still under lock and key, under stark conditions, in the maximum-security wing of Ramle’s Ayalon Prison. The Supreme Court has extended his remand 14 times, accepting the Shin Bet’s claims that E belongs to a Jewish terror organization — one of only three citizens in Israel’s history to be branded by that designation.
E’s lawyer claims there is still no proof that Jews carried out the Duma attack. He points out that there were two subsequent arsons in Duma in the first half of 2016 that authorities attributed to violence between Arab clans in the village.
His parents and lawyers are restricted to one 30-minute visit per week, during which they are separated by a glass barrier. Once a month the window is raised for an awkward exchange of hugs. Authorities have turned down appeals to transfer E to a religious wing where he could daven and attend shiurim.
His mother said that prison authorities have allowed a social worker to visit when they have sensed he is especially down. “That made us feel good that they listened to us and sent someone to speak to him, but basically, he’s alone 24/7,” his mother said.
How is he holding up?
Prison doctors say he is suffering from PTSD. His mother says: “Physically he’s okay, but he looks pale. He doesn’t see the sunlight, and his nutrition is not the greatest. We talk about Yosef, who was in a much worse prison for far longer. He’s an amazing child with great emunah,” his mother says. “But then he has days where he questions how much longer it will take and what will happen if nobody believes his story.”
And how are his parents coping?
“It’s almost like living in two parallel worlds,” his mother says. “When we’re in E’s world, we do what we can to help. Sometimes I just break down and cry. Then there’s our other life. We have six other children and ten grandchildren. We try to be okay for them. If we didn’t have emunah in HaKadosh Baruch Hu, we couldn’t survive. We don’t know the hows or whys and we may never find out in this lifetime, but that’s what’s keeping us strong.”