Never enough evidence to convict ‘price tag’ attackers

It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the police are incapable, even at their best, of obtaining convictions for Jews who burn Palestinian vehicles. 

By Yesh Din, written by Yossi Gurvitz

Palestinians from the village Duma gather at the Dawabshe house, which was attacked by two arsonists Friday morning. Ali , an 18-month-old toddler, was burned to death in the attack. His parents and four-year-old brother are currently hospitalized in Israel in serious condition. (photo: Oren Ziv/
Palestinians from the village Duma gather at the Dawabshe house, which was attacked by two arsonists Friday morning. Ali , an 18-month-old toddler, was burned to death in the attack. His parents and four-year-old brother are currently hospitalized in Israel in serious condition. (photo: Oren Ziv/

The deplorable murder of Ali Dawabshe led to a wave of far-reaching, anti-democratic proposals allegedly meant to augment the fight against hate crimes targeting Palestinians. As Yesh Din sees it, the problem lies somewhere else entirely: the quality of police work. The final week of July — which began with a stunning acquittal and ended with a terrible tragedy — provided us with a good example.

At the end of July, a judge in Be’er Sheva District Court acquitted Aharon Sadigorsky, Nethanel Klarman, and Yehiel Lex over the burning of Mahmoud Arnan’s car in the West Bank village of Al Asja near Hebron. They were also charged with spray-painting the words “price tag” and “congratulations Effi” on a nearby wall. The three were acquitted after the court ruled that the nationalist crime unit of the Samaria and Judea Police Department failed to provide evidence connecting them to the arson.

Acquittals happen, but this one is particularly galling. One of the accused was arrested while wearing a ski mask; all three were in a car that did not belong to them; the vehicle contained a plastic bottle containing fuel, stones in a sack, a crowbar, gloves, a can of black spray paint, a bag of nails, and a realistic, plastic replica of an M16 assault rifle. The judge stated that he “does not trust the testimonies of the accused, which aside from being late [i.e. provided only in the court, not to police – YZG] seem to be coordinated and make no sense.” None of this was not enough to convict them.

Some background. The verdict states that Sadigorsky and Klarman met on the night of the arson in Hebron, where they arrived, they claimed, in order to visit a fourth friend. Together with Lex they enter a red Subaru belonging to Sadigorsky. Unbeknownst to them, police had received intelligence that the car had been used for price tag attacks and was being tracked by the police. The three then allegedly drove to the settlement of Ma’on, where they changed cars and – so they claim – picked up a hitchhiker who wanted to go to the nearby settlement of Beit Hagai. None of the three would later be able to identify him. At around 2 a.m., they decided to drive to Samoa, where there is an ancient synagogue. The hitchhiker, they state in retrospect, asked them to drop him off in Beit Haggai on their way back, but continued on with them.

The three don’t know it, but they are being followed. The police know they are up to something, and that they are in a vehicle that doesn’t belong to them, but somehow lose track of them for a critical half hour. When they identify the three again the cops move quickly and detain them. During the arrest, Klarman is wearing a ski mask. The fourth man manages to escape to the outpost of Mitzpe Eshtamoa; the indictment notes he attacked an IDF scout who tried to detain him.

Soldiers arrest a masked settler (Photo: Oren Ziv/
Illustrative photo of soldiers arresting a masked settler (Photo: Oren Ziv/

Police detained the trio at around 2 a.m.; the price tag attack in Al Asja took place between 1:45 and 2:10. No one witnessed the attack itself. The residents of the house woke up soon after the attack, and naturally were busy putting out the fire.

The judge was unimpressed by the tale told by the three defendants, ruling that their testimony was unreliable. He also wrote that it is perfectly possible that the three did carry out the arson but that “perfectly possible” is not the standard for conviction — “beyond reasonable doubt” is. And since testimony and evidence about the critical events – the arson itself – are lacking, he had no choice but to acquit them.

Read: A court of non-convictions when the victim is Palestinian

It is very hard to shake the feeling that had the defendant been Palestinian, he would be convicted, and rather speedily. One also finds it hard to ignore the feeling that were the defendant a Jew caught with a locksmith kit (and not with fuel, immediately following an arson in a Palestinian village), he, too, would face a speedy conviction. It is hard to believe a defendant who was not charged with a nationalistic crime would be acquitted. The Israeli rate of acquittal is not high – unless the victim is a Palestinian.

But when all is said and done, there was an acquittal, which the prosecution will not appeal; one has to face the unpleasant fact that the case lacked critical evidence. One must say, while gritting teeth, that the judge was right: I wish more people against whom the level of evidence was so low would be acquitted.

But something else must also be said. This was a flag case for the nationalist crime unit, mockingly nicknamed FASHLA (acronym for nationalistic crime, which also means “screw up”). The police had suspects in its sights; it had a car under surveillance; it bugged the car; it knew which car the suspects switched to. And yet, after all this effort and investment, police were still unable to obtain the necessary evidence to secure a conviction.

These are the optimal circumstances. The police had intel, and it was accurate. When the trio entered the car, the cops identified them. They knew those guys; they knew the car well enough to identify the sounds of the Subaru’s moribund engine. And after all the efforts, investment in time and money, proven ability – nothing.

The “Yapanit Aduma” (“Red Japanese”) case, as the police called it, was a flag case – and it dropped the ball. You have to give it points for effort, but it dropped the ball. The message “Yapanit Aduma” sends price tag attackers is simple: Keep your mouth shut and say nothing under interrogation. If you have the misfortune of actually appearing before a judge, sell him a half-baked fairy tale. It will be enough, since the police are incapable of obtaining evidence. If you don’t convict yourself, you won’t be convicted by them.

The message for Palestinian victims is quite different: don’t waste your time. If the police couldn’t obtain the evidence in this case — when the suspects were in sight and being tailed — what chance does it have when the attacker is unknown and not under surveillance? What are the chances that the police get a conviction for an assault taking place in a field, or on the outskirts of a village – attacks which lack the show-off element of a slogan (which isn’t the crime but rather its attendant) — but which are much more common, when it doesn’t have the benefit of preemptively positioning bugs and cameras?

What are the chances? Unfortunately, we know the answer: 1.9 percent.

Written by Yossi Gurvitz in his capacity as a blogger for Yesh Din, Volunteers for Human Rights. A version of this post was first published on Yesh Din’s blog.

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