(photo credit: )
Asaf Ben-David, an Israeli Jew, is facing charges of conspiring to carry out a terror attack with a wanted Palestinian terrorist - his brother.
The exceptional story of Ben-David, a 38-year-old father of four, begins in Tubas, a village in the West Bank, where he was born a Palestinian Muslim named Hussam Sawafta. In the early 1990s, he found work as a laborer in Israel, where he converted to Judaism, lived as an Orthodox Jew, married an Israeli woman and raised a family.
For years, Ben-David led a seemingly uneventful life and had little contact with his Palestinian relatives. Then last month, the IDF killed his brother, an Islamic Jihad member, in a West Bank gunbattle.
Ben-David's story took another dramatic turn last week, when he was indicted on charges of helping his brother plan a deadly attack against Israelis.
According to the charge sheet, Ben-David surreptitiously had contact with his brother over a period of months, replacing the SIM card in his cellphone several times to avoid being tracked, and tried to help him obtain a large amount of nitric acid, used to prepare bombs.
"In the framework of his contacts with Salah, the accused conspired with Salah to assist the Islamic Jihad in its war against Israel," reads the indictment, filed in Haifa District Court. The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad has killed dozens of Israelis in suicide bombings.
On Sunday, the Sawafta family's large home in Tubas was adorned with a black Islamic Jihad flag. In the living room hung a picture of Salah Sawafta, who died in a gunfight with IDF troops on Dec. 20.
Mahmoud Sawafta, Ben-David's cousin, said Ben-David left Tubas to find work in Israel 15 years ago, and didn't come back.
"It was the first time he had left the village. He saw a different life, got married, and converted to Judaism," Sawafta said. Ben-David worked in restaurants and construction, and had only sporadic contact with the West Bank family, he said.
Amit Rosines, Ben-David's court-appointed lawyer, said Ben-David told him that on the few occasions that he went to the village he was scorned as a traitor. "People in the village shouted at him that he raised Jewish soldiers," Rosines said.
Ben-David re-entered the life of the Sawafta family in earnest when his brother was killed, according to Hafez Sawafta, Ben-David's father. Sawafta said he called his Jewish son the day his Islamic Jihad son was killed, and that Ben-David came to Tubas and stayed for three days to mourn the death.
When he returned to Israel, he decided to renounce Judaism and return to Islam, Sawafta said.
"He called me, and said he had officially become Muslim again in a ceremony at a mosque, and said he wanted to give up his Israeli citizenship," Sawafta told The Associated Press.
Ben-David was arrested at his home in a Haifa suburb.
The family learned of the arrest through his son's wife Sima, Sawafta said. Later that week, Sima cut off all contact. "Sima doesn't answer our calls anymore," Sawafta said.
Sima Ben-David was not available for comment. The family's home number was disconnected, and Rosines, Ben-David's attorney, said she had not contacted him - or, to his knowledge, her husband - since the arrest.
His client denied any involvement in terrorism, Rosines said.
Ben-David had contact with his brother Salah in the months preceding Salah's death, but the two only discussed family matters, Rosines said. He said Ben-David tried to get his brother to turn himself in to Israeli authorities, and re-converted to Islam to protect himself from harm when going to his family's village.
The brothers met in person only once, Rosines said. At one point, according to Rosines, Salah gave Ben-David a letter asking him to help acquire a large amount of nitric acid to make bombs.
"Ben-David says he put the letter aside and forgot about it, and never considered actually getting the material for his brother," Rosines said.
Two months before Salah was killed, Ben-David was brought in for questioning by the Shin Bet internal security agency, Rosines said. "The agents wanted to know why he was in touch with a wanted terrorist. He said, 'It's my brother, and you can't tell me not to speak with him,"' Rosines said.
George Shehade, an attorney retained by the Sawafta family, said it was possible that Salah Sawafta had tried to exploit the fact that he had a brother living in Israel. But Ben-David did not cooperate, Shehade said.
"You can't convict someone for talking to his brother, his parents, to the people he grew up with," Shehade said.