Into the fray: Duma, ‘dirty dancing’ & deeply disturbing detention

To draw any equivalence between Arab, Jewish “terror” is like claiming that a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and a rubber dinghy are equivalent because they can both be classed "sailing vessels."

A man looks out of a house badly damaged by a firebomb attack by suspected Jewish extremists in the Palestinian village of Duma in the West Bank, July 31, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man looks out of a house badly damaged by a firebomb attack by suspected Jewish extremists in the Palestinian village of Duma in the West Bank, July 31, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The houses burned [in Duma] aren’t in the outskirts of the town where it is easy to make a getaway. – Amira Hass, Haaretz, July 31
What a complete mess. The Dawabsha family deserves justice, justice requires the correct people [be] punished for this horrific crime...Israel has a justice system that requires evidence to bring charges. No charges have been brought despite a month of intense interrogations and detentions. Politicians have made [a] mockery of our judicial system. – Talkbacker @Zionista, in response to “Judge rejects police appeal against release of Duma suspect,” The Jerusalem Post, December 29
Without decisive proof of commission of a crime, there is no crime. That is the overriding ethical principle of justice in a democracy... – Sever Plocker, Yediot Aharonot, December 30
What follows is not an easy position to take – and in the circles in which I move, certainly not a fashionable one. This is particularly so, barely a week after the release of the distasteful video showing a unkempt, raucous crowd, aggressively brandishing firearms and defacing photos of the infant Ali Dawabsha who died in an arson attack on his home in the village of Duma – committed by as yet unidentified perpetrator(s).
Full disclosure: My natural bias
I have a strong personal bias in favor of the Israeli security services and the intelligence community, in whose ranks I served for seven years. I have the greatest esteem for the dedication, commitment and professional competence of those who serve in them. Perhaps more than many, I have a keen appreciation for the effort, risk and at times sacrifice their work involves.
In stark contrast, I have little or no affinity for the “hilltop youth” – or for any other radically religious affiliates they may or may not be associated with – neither with regard to their theo-political ideology nor with the practical methods of operation by which they allegedly strive to implement it.
In large measure, my decidedly secular socio-cultural milieu is the antithesis of theirs, with its all-encompassing, faith-based fervor.
Yet, despite my natural proclivities, ever since the fatal torching of the Dawabshas’ dwelling at the end of July, I have felt a growing uneasiness at the handling of the public outcry. This relates to what can only be described as a knee-jerk response, not only to apportion blame for the act to Jewish “terrorists” (despite the absence of any evidence to substantiate the allegation), but to employ extra-judicial measures to contend with it, similar to those employed against Arab terrorist organizations.
Indeed, immediately following the Duma arson, I articulated this concern in a series of three articles, “Jewish hate crimes and vandalism are NOT terrorism,” (August 6); Trivializing ‘terror,’” (August 13); and “Why now? The hypocritical hullabaloo over Jewish ‘terror,’” August 20). In it I urged caution in assigning guilt without proof of the perpetrators identity and argued against drawing any equivalence between Arab terrorism and Jewish ideologically motivated crimes, and the powers the state need invoke to deal with them.
What we’re expected to believe
I have no idea who set the Dawabsha family’s home ablaze.
But neither, so it would seem, has the Israeli authorities – from the state prosecution, through the police force to the internal security services.
After all, they were ordered by the court this week to release to house arrest a minor, previously alleged to be a principal suspect in the Duma homicide, who, after almost a month of “aggressive” interrogation and weeks of being held incommunicado, was finally cleared of any involvement in the crime. (More on this later.)
But if we were to assume for arguments sake that it was Jewish religious radicals of the ilk being excoriated by all and sundry as being “terrorists,” for this to be a plausible scenario, what we would have to accept? We would have to believe that these youths – apparently minors or barely out of their teens – without any special forces training, managed to (a) infiltrate, undetected, the center of a hostile village; (b) execute a presumably noisy arson attack on two buildings (one uninhabited); (c) brazenly spray a large Hebrew slogan on one of the walls of the targeted structures; and (d) then, make a phantom-like escape, egressing the village without a trace, never mind without being apprehended, without leaving any trail or clue to indicate where they had vanished to.
Really? All this, apparently, without any back-up contingent, standing by to extricate them, should they be discovered and set upon (read “lynched”) by the inhabitants of the village?
What’s wrong with this picture?
If that is not implausible enough, consider this.
Having committed the dastardly deed, these youthful renegade radicals, who presumably have not been extensively schooled in the tradecraft of clandestine activity, apparently have the iron discipline not to let slip the vaguest hint of what they had perpetrated. No boastful bravado, no indiscreet phone call in a moment of weakness – only sphinx-like silence for months on end, while the county’s entire law enforcement apparatus, together with the formidable internal security services, was hunting them.
Remember, the suspects, unlike covert intelligence agents operating in foreign lands, cannot escape to some safe haven in another country. Quite the opposite, they comprise a small, easily identifiable group, confined to well-known locations, readily recognized by their physical appearance and thus unable to blend in easily with the general population.
For months the law enforcement agencies, with all the measures at their disposal – covert surveillance, phone tapping, insertion of undercover agents, enlistment of group members to become informers (either willingly, by positive persuasion or unwillingly, under duress) – could not come up with any incriminating evidence.
Then, having designated the Duma arson as “terrorism,” the government invoked extra-judicial powers and arrested several suspects – including a number of minors – by administrative detention without bringing specific charges against them, and according to numerous media reports – including in Newsweek (December 17) – without sufficient evidence to bring them to trial.
Could it be that there is something disturbingly wrong with this picture?
Like hardened special operators?
Significantly, even after a month of intensive interrogation (and skirting the controversy over whether or not “torture” was inflicted on them), in which the detainees were undeniably subjected to harsh pressures and kept incommunicado for weeks, and denied access to legal counsel, still (by submission of this column) no indictments have been filed.
I, of course, have no privileged information as to what occurred in Duma on the tragic night of July 31. Undoubtedly, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility – although, arguably, beyond the bounds of plausibility – that events did unfold exactly as described. It is entirely possible, albeit hardly plausible, that the teenage suspects conducted themselves with the competence and capability, the dedication and daring of hardened special operators, not only in executing the assault, but also in evading detection and withstanding weeks of harsh interrogation.
When cast in these terms, it is difficult to avoid conjuring up in one’s mind alternative scenarios, no less plausible, indeed arguably more so, to account for what happened and why it has been so difficult to produce any incriminating evidence implicating the suspects in the commission of the dreadful deed, beyond what will inevitably be considered by many (perhaps myself included), confessions extracted under duress.
Emerging mainstream media skepticism?
Indeed, there are signs of emerging skepticism in some of the mainstream media.
Thus under a very prominent headline, “The Release; The Appeal; The Embarrassment,” Yediot Aharonot (December 29) reported on the court’s decision to release one of the suspects from custody to home arrest after learning that he was no longer alleged to be implicated in the Duma arson, but rather for being involved in an altercation with a Palestinian shepherd almost two years previously, thus clearly not a “ticking bomb.”
The state unsuccessfully appealed this decision, which was later upheld by a higher court. The defendant’s lawyer remarked: “This is the first time since the beginning of the investigation in which the court expressed its disapproval of the investigating unit’s conduct.”
In an interview with said suspect on prime time news, Channel 2’s Ofer Haddad commented, somewhat acerbically: “The charges against the minor, whose identity cannot be revealed, one of the prime suspects in the murder... have been changed from allegations of being involved in the shocking homicide to allegations of being involved in a quarrel with a Palestinian shepherd about two years ago.”
Haddad added pointedly: “[The suspect] was released to home arrest after it became apparent that he was not connected in any way to the [Duma] episode. [He was] one of several detainees through whom the security apparatus attempted to acquire a lead in... an investigation in which it seems the investigators fired indiscriminately in all directions – and, in this case at least, in the wrong direction.”
Polemic over proper powers, not proper punishment
The real polemic regarding the Duma episode is not over whether the perpetrators, whoever they are, Jew or Arab, should be punished to the full extent of the law. On that there is little disagreement. It is rather over what are the proper powers the state needs employ in order to contend with whoever is behind it.
At the heart of this dispute lies the question of whether the act, if committed by Jews, can be associated with other allegedly ideologically motivated crimes, and thus be appropriately designated as acts of “terrorism” – thereby permitting the use of extra-judicial powers that cannot be used in the case of “normal” crimes, however heinous.
In many ways, this is a controversy that is misplaced and misleading. After all, if for arguments sake, it turns out that the arsonists were Arabs, members of the rival clan reportedly locked in a feud for almost two decades with the Dawabshas, the deed will not be any less dire, but no longer able to be designated “terrorism” But even if one accepts the contorted argument that both the actions of ISIS, al-Qaida, Hezbollah and Hamas, backed by foreign powers such as Iran, Qatar and Israel’s new “best-friend,” Saudi Arabia, with international reach and multi-million dollar budgets, on the one hand, and those of “hilltop youth,” on the other, can be deemed “terrorism,” any comparison between them and the means required to deal them is wildly inappropriate.
Nuclear aircraft carriers vs rubber dinghies
In this sense, to try and draw any equivalence between Arab terrorism and Jewish “terror” is akin to claiming that a nuclear- powered aircraft carrier, bristling with the most advanced weapons systems, and a four-foot rubber dinghy, are equivalent, because they can both be classed “sailing vessels” – and hence comprise similar naval threats, to be dealt with by similar measures.
Clearly, contriving common nomenclature does not create common substance, nor call for common responses.
The public dissemination of the “dirty dancing” wedding video seems to have unnerved several relatively sensible politicians and pundits, including some of my esteemed colleagues, who share the Post’s Opinion section with me. They seem to have been panicked into believing that this marginal and marginalized group of a few dozen renegades actually comprises a tangible threat to the existence of the Zionist state.
Without wishing to appear overly dismissive, I would be more than intrigued to hear from them how they realistically envisage this ominous outcome occurring and the mechanisms by which this will take place.
Will all 12 of them storm the Knesset, brandishing tefillin? I would be further intrigued to learn why, even if such a threat can be shown to exist, it can/should not be dealt with by the nation’s normal apparatus of law enforcement, without recourse to draconian measures available to the state to contend with far greater threats and more formidable opponents.
Hazardous hyperbole
There is still much that can be added to this analysis, which time and space preclude me from broaching. But the hysterical hyperbole, that is being bandied about entails many unintended consequences – such as loss of confidence in the justice system and the security services, in large and influential sectors of the population; and raises numerous troubling questions such as what is it that ignites such internecine loathing among Jews.
But these are questions that will have to await a future column.
Until then – Happy 2016
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (