Days after suspected Jewish arsonists hurled a firebomb into a house, burning an 18-month-old toddler to death and injuring his parents and brother, Abed Alsalam Dawabsheh, the mayor of Duma, pondered how to increase security for the West Bank town’s 3,000 residents. He had serious limitations.
“The only thing we can carry is sticks and lights,” Dawabsheh said as he sat in the courtyard of the village’s elementary school, converted into a mourning tent for the toddler, Ali Dawabsheh, who despite a common last name was not closely related to the mayor. “We are not allowed to carry weapons.”
Officially, Israel is charged with guaranteeing the security of Palestinian residents of the West Bank, but the arson Friday in Duma underscored the holes in the arrangement. Palestinian police do not operate in rural areas, and Palestinians say Israeli police and soldiers are lax in their enforcement of the law when Israelis are the suspects. The Israeli Yesh Din organization, which offers legal counsel to Palestinians, claims that of 1,067 police complaints Palestinians filed against Israeli assailants in the last decade, only 19 ended in a conviction.
“Law enforcement really doesn’t work regarding Palestinian complaints,” said Yesh Din spokesman Gilad Grossman. He noted that 85 percent of cases were closed for “poor police work.”
“Sometimes they don’t close the crime scene,” Grossman said. “They don’t take all the necessary evidence. Or they won’t interview the complainant.”
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said that Israeli law enforcement is cracking down on Jewish violence against Palestinians. She said the national police’s establishment of a unit in March 2013 devoted to nationalist crime, with 80 officers assigned to the West Bank, focused attention on such incidents.
The result, she said, was a 30 percent increase in 2014 in the number of Palestinian complaints handled and a 75 percent increase in indictments. Complicating law enforcement efforts, she noted, are the fact that many Jewish suspects are minors and that Israeli police need military escorts to conduct investigations in Palestinian areas.
Police issued a rare call for information on the Duma case on Tuesday. Israeli courts imposed a gag order on the investigation; no arrests have been reported.
Israel’s government has acknowledged a lack of enforcement in cases of Jewish nationalist crime. Speaking at a rally Sunday in Jerusalem, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin decried the actions of “Jewish terrorists” in Duma.
Every society has extremist fringes, but today we have to ask: What is it in the public atmosphere which allows extremism and extremists to walk in confidence, in broad daylight?
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
“An atmosphere has been created here that has allowed leniency toward what is naively called ‘weeds,’” Rivlin said. “Every society has extremist fringes, but today we have to ask: What is it in the public atmosphere which allows extremism and extremists to walk in confidence, in broad daylight?”
Following his comments, Rivlin became a target of ultra-nationalist Jewish Israelis, who flooded his Facebook page with comments such as “may you and your children also burn.” Some commenters posted illustrations of him in a Nazi uniform or wearing the traditional Palestinian keffiyeh headdress.
To combat Jewish terrorism, Israel on Sunday approved holding Jewish suspects in administrative detention, during which they are not told the charges against them. Until now, administrative detention had been used only in cases involving Palestinian suspects. Critics say the measure is undemocratic for both Israelis and Palestinians; the government says secrecy is needed to maintain its information networks.
On Monday, Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency arrested Meir Ettinger, the grandson of the late Meir Kahane, whose outlawed Kach party advocated expelling Arabs from Israel and the Palestinian territories. Ettinger is suspected of leading a June arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication in northern Israel, a Roman Catholic church that commemorates the biblical story of the fishes and the loaves.
The Israeli pledges to increase enforcement against Jewish attackers have given little comfort to residents of Duma.
“Israel says they want to catch (the suspects). . . . I don’t believe it,” said Nasser Dawabsheh, an uncle of the slain child. “The soldiers and the government of Israel support the settlements,” a reference to the Jewish towns that dot the West Bank and where the perpetrators are thought likely to live.
Nasser Dawabsheh said his wife and children feared walking through their house without him at their sides. He seemed exhausted as he drank strong black coffee under the shade of a blue tarp in the village mourning tent.
Dawabsheh recalled how he tried but failed to save his nephew on the night of the fire. He said images of the tiny charred body have kept him awake since, and his days have been spent shuttling between two hospitals inside Israel where his brother Saed, his sister-in-law Riham and his nephew Ahmad are being treated for their burns.
Posters bearing the smiling face of Ali Dawabsheh plaster the front of the school. Dawabsheh pointed to other posters tacked up bearing the face of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who died in 2014 when Jewish Israelis abducted him and burned him alive in Jerusalem in what they said was retaliation for the murder of three Israeli youths by Palestinians. The suspects in Abu Khdeir’s case are still on trial.
The death of Ali Dawabsheh inflamed tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. On Monday, assailants thought to be Palestinians lobbed a firebomb at the vehicle of Israeli Inbar Azrak, 27, who leaped out of her car in Jerusalem and is recovering from burns to her legs.
Ashraf Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the Palestinian Authority filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court about the arson in Duma. He said the neighborhood watch underway in Duma was part of a West Bank-wide trend.
“There is no faith in the Israeli legal system or police, and people under this situation need to have a feeling of protection,” Khatib said.
In Duma, Mayor Dawabsheh said he’d received no help from the Palestinian Authority for his neighborhood watch group, but with weapons prohibited, there’s no expensive equipment to buy.
For now, the village will rely on bands of unarmed young men staking out the sprawling olive groves on its perimeter.
“If the settlers know there is just one guy awake in town, they won’t attack,” he said.
Cheslow is a McClatchy special correspondent.