Duma arson attack: ‘The sadness has not stopped’
Two years after settlers killed a Palestinian baby and his parents, the Dawabsheh family’s pain lives on.
Duma, occupied West Bank – On a scrap of land in the Palestinian village of Duma, thorns and wild daisies bloom between rough pebbles and three breeze-block graves.
To the left is the smallest grave, containing the remains of 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh. Propped behind it is a sign reading: “Here lie the bodies of the martyrs of the dawn burning, who rose to the heavens after the sinful assault by a group of settlers on their home on Friday, July 31, 2015.”
Ali, along with his parents, Saad and Reham Dawabsheh, fell victim to an arson attack by Israeli settlers that night. Ali died immediately, while Saad, 32, passed away after a week in hospital, and Reham, 26, after six weeks. Ahmed, Ali’s older brother, now 7, was the only survivor.
Nearly two years later, their friends and relatives are still struggling to deal with the tragedy.
“I am trying to bring my life back to normal,” Ali’s uncle, Nasser Dawabsheh, told Al Jazeera from his family home in Duma, a 15-minute walk from the gravesite. “But that takes time. Maybe it will take years.”
Their grief is compounded by the dead ends they have encountered while trying to obtain an admission of responsibility from the Israeli government. In April, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the young boy would not quality for compensation as a “terror victim”.
Under Israeli law, the state must compensate victims of “terrorism” – but the law does not apply to Palestinians, such as Ahmed, who live in the occupied West Bank and are not Israeli citizens or residents.
The Dawabsheh family has now filed a lawsuit against Israel, demanding that the state accept responsibility for the attack and pay $4.4m in damages.
Financial compensation, Nasser said, is less important than a full admission of responsibility from Israel: “Our goal is not money, because money will not bring back what we have lost,” he said, noting that the family has rejected previous offers of compensation from the state.
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Back in 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Dawabsheh case as “a terror attack in every respect”. In January 2016, settler Amiram Ben Oleal was charged with murder on the basis of a hate crime in relation to the firebombing. A minor, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was charged with being an accessory to committing a racially motivated murder.
For the Dawabsheh family, it was not enough: “[The state must] accept responsibility for the attacks and the terrorism from the settlers, who live in the outposts built on our lands … with the protection and help from the occupation army,” Nasser said.
The Israeli Defence Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. It has previously said that the Dawabshehs could apply for compensation from a special committee for victims of supposed nationalistic attacks.
But Hassan al-Khatib, a lawyer representing the Dawabsheh family, said that “more than 90 percent” of Palestinian compensation claims lodged with the special committee are refused.
Israeli human rights group B’Tselem told Al Jazeera that the state encouraged settler attacks by “maintaining loose to nonexistent enforcement of the law”, noting in a statement: “This is but one example of Israel’s refusal to pay compensation to Palestinians when it clearly should and can do so, according to any moral and legal standard.”
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Whatever the outcome, the Dawabsheh family lives alongside terrible reminders of the attack in Duma, an unassuming village 25km southeast of Nablus.
In Saad and Reham’s former home, one smoke-stained wall bears the words: “They burned the infant.” Among the charred, twisted knots of the family’s belongings is a melted, black-and-orange child’s buggy. Sooty blankets, dust and shards of broken glass are scattered across the floor.
The house has remained this way since the night of the firebombing, nearly two years ago. Nasser says it will not change; the family hopes to turn it into a museum.
Every time he sees the house, “I feel like the attack happens again,” Nasser said.
“When people leave, I stay inside the house and cry for more than an hour. In the past, the place was full and active, but now it is dark.”
A mural drawn inside the house since the attack shows a tiny boy wrapped in a Palestinian flag, his wide mouth open in silent terror. Skulls hang from the arms of a mobile toy hanging above his playpen, itself set alight by a hand bearing the Star of David.
The Dawabsheh family blames Israel’s settlement policies for the fate of their loved ones. Settlements in the occupied West Bank have continued to expand, even though they are considered illegal under international law, and Palestinians continue to face violence and intimidation from settlers.
Between 2013 and 2016, just eight percent of completed cases of ideologically motivated attacks against Palestinians and their property in the occupied West Bank led to indictments, according to human rights group Yesh Din, which cited a trend of “protracted failure” in the investigations.
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Meanwhile, as the physical burns that Ahmed sustained are healing, the broader recovery process will go on for some time.
“He knows everything that happened,” Nasser said. “He remembers how they [the settlers] attacked his parents, and sometimes he explains how he escaped. He always asks: ‘Why did they attack us? Why did my dad not stop them?’ He thinks that his dad was a brave man and should have stopped them.”
Rehab Zaid Dawabsheh, Saad’s mother, says she cannot face the sight of the family’s torched home.
“I left the part of the village where the house was burned, because I am not able to face that place, or see it, or cross its door again,” she told Al Jazeera, sitting in her bright white reception room.
Just days earlier, Rehab had lost her husband, now buried next to Saad, Reham and Ali.
Back at the gravesite, warm morning sun radiates across the breeze blocks. The cemetery is empty of mourners, but Rehab’s words hang in the air.
“Day by day, my sadness is increasing, even though the attack happened two years ago,” she said. “The sadness has not stopped.”