Orian Ben Uliel
Orian Ben UlielPhoto: Hillel Peleg

The unimaginable story that has become her life unfolds during the interview. I take a chance and ask if she has ever thought of giving up on Amiram, divorcing him, and moving on with her life.

"What? All of a sudden to abandon him like that?" She is surprised by the question. "I am not leaving my husband, we are together through fire and water."

I asked if he has ever raised that possibility.

"Absolutely not. We are together."

Seven years without hugging his daughter

Orian's husband, Amiram ben Uliel, was convicted of maliciously setting fire to a house in the village of Duma, and of murdering a father, mother, and baby - Saad, Riham, and Ali Dewabsha. Their four-year-old son, Ahmed, was seriously injured. Ben Uliel was sentenced to three life sentences. About a month ago, it was announced that his appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected and the sentence stands.

Ben Uliel is in prison under the harshest conditions possible in Israel: he is alone in a cell, he is not allowed to see people at any time, and even when he goes out into the yard for a short time, he is alone. Despite being observant, he is not allowed to pray in a minyan (group of ten adult men required for certain religious obligations), not even on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Judaism’s most sacred holy day. He blows the shofar alone in his cell. Recently, he was allowed to study one hour a week with another prisoner.

Orian is allowed to visit him once a fortnight for 45 minutes only, with a glass partition between them. His daughter, Malchut Hadassah, who was less than a year old when her father was first arrested, is now a second-grade student.

Only recently, due to media pressure, was she allowed to cross the partition and be with her father in physical proximity. The prevention of physical contact between Amiram and his daughter was defined by the Israel Prison Service (IPS) as a "mistake", a mistake that lasted for years. "She finally has a father: he can hug and kiss her, play with her. They play catch together in the two-meter space," Orian smiles.

Ben Uliel is not entitled to conjugal visits with his wife. During the coronavirus epidemic, his family did not see him for months.

"At the beginning of the epidemic, he could call and talk to us on the phone, but at some point, the IPS stopped that. My daughter would wake up in the middle of the night at that time and scream: 'Daddy! What happened to daddy?' I recorded her crying so they would understand how much she was suffering, but it didn't interest them. Even Yigal Amir [who murdered Yitzhak Rabin] has better conditions than Amiram," she says. "He has conjugal visits, telephone calls, open visits, and he is no longer in solitary confinement.

" Arab security prisoners receive the best conditions in Israeli prisons, while Amiram -- whose confession would have been rejected in other countries, and with an indictment that is full of contradictions that lead to far beyond a reasonable doubt -- is deprived of every basic civil right. The trial dragged on for months and years. He was in jail waiting to know what will happen to him and it just didn't interest them: the judge's daughter gave birth and the hearing was postponed for a month, the prosecutor had another personal matter and the hearing was postponed for another month. They do not see a human being in front of them, but only an object."

How did he react to the rejection of his appeal?

"He didn't fall apart, despite the disappointment. He told me: 'I told you there was no reason to trust them. God will get me out. Don't pin your hopes on them, don't believe in them.' Amiram clings to the Torah and his faith; otherwise, he would have gone mad. He sits all day and studies."

Ben Uliel also experienced anxiety attacks and post-traumatic stress in prison after the severe torture he endured. His family asked that he be able to talk to a psychologist but the request was not approved.

How are you getting along?

"I'm trying to strengthen my faith. We don't understand Divine calculations. I believe that God will make everything work out," she says. "I go through very difficult times. There are times when I have faith and at other times I am completely broken."

"Before Amiram was arrested, I was a mentally balanced person. I didn't know what anxiety was, so when I first experienced it I was terribly frightened. I was sure I was going to die, my body started shaking. There were periods when I was depressed and I felt horrible. I had a lot of difficulty functioning. A psychologist helped me and now, with God's blessing, I feel much better.

"I'm trying very hard to be strong for our daughter. She doesn't understand why she can't grow up with her father, why she doesn't have brothers and sisters, why she's different from everyone else. Sometimes she suddenly starts crying, 'What about daddy? I want my father to be at home', and I have no way to answer her. I tell her about Yosef HaTzadik [Joseph the Righteous] who was in prison for 12 years, about Sholom Rubashkin, the Chabad prisoner who was released from an American prison, and she asks to hear these stories over and over again."

During the holidays, they stay with Orian's friends or travel to visit family. "I've already gotten used to it being just the two of us because on Shabbat we're at home a lot, but it's important to me, for the sake of our daughter, that on holidays we won't be alone." She is close to the girl most of the day, trying to have a routine. "It's important for me to calm her down, that she sees me happy and that she doesn't see me in times of crisis. Every time I talk about the trial or mention lawyers, she gets stressed."

She had to tell her daughter about the rejection of the appeal when she saw her sobbing the morning of receiving the message. "Despite everything, she is a heroic child, and despite how much she suffers, she is a happy child." Malchut Hadassah studies at the Beit Ya'akov Hasidic Breslov school. "She gets a lot of support at school," says Orian. "When the principal heard our story, she was shocked and is trying to help as much as possible."

Oriane, who currently lives in Jerusalem, has a supportive environment of friends and family. Before the summer vacation, she worked giving extracurricular reading lessons to girls. "It did me good. I want to go back to it, but I haven't been able to organize myself for it yet."

She is constantly busy with Amiram, meeting people, consulting and trying to think of what else can be done for him. "I try to avoid thinking about what will happen in the future and to believe that everything will turn out for the better."

To finance the legal expenses, a 'Headstart' project was opened for Ben Uliel. There was an enormous response: "We raised 1,400,000 shekels - far beyond what we expected. It warmed the heart," she says, and says that she is overwhelmed by the sympathy and support of the people of Israel: "People constantly ask how they can help, they send gifts to Malchut Hadassa during the holidays; communities send me packages. The people of Israel hold us together. Seven books of Psalms are recited for him every day. It goes straight to the heart and it's a gift."

The family does not intend to give up the fight, and they are now planning to submit a request for an extended appeal hearing at the High Court.

What about Amiram's parents? They are not interviewed at all.

"They are broken. They had a hard time accepting the rejection of the appeal because they really expected it to be accepted by the Supreme Court," Orian explains sadly. "His parents are quiet and introverted people and choose not to go out to the media, that's their choice. I'm would prefer them to go out and say what they have to say," she admits, "because it's easiest for the state when the family sits quietly and lets injustices continue in the dark."

"The evidence in his favor was not considered"

Ben Uliel's conviction was based on a confession that was extracted after being tortured by Shin Bet investigators. Supreme Court judges ruled that the confession obtained immediately after the torture was inadmissible, but the reenactment and confession given about 36 hours later were deemed acceptable. Yet, Ben Uliel was being held by his interrogators and the threat of torture still hovered over his head.

"The judges here simply permitted the Shin Bet to extract confessions from people under torture," says Orian. "He was so afraid that they would torture him again, that of course he said everything they instructed him to say, both in the interrogation rooms and in the reenactment itself. How can one imagine that after fewer than two days, when he is still in the hands of the same investigators, the fear of torture has faded?"

In the reenactment, Amiram described a journey in which he walked alone for over an hour to the village of Duma, managed to locate two houses that he identified as inhabited, found windows in them and threw Molotov cocktails inside, sprayed two different graffiti inscriptions and returned home on foot without anyone noticing him.

No forensic evidence was found for this trip: the bag that the indictment claims he had with him -- containing the Molotov cocktails, lighter, matches, gloves, and spray for spraying the graffiti - was never found. Amiram claimed that he burned the case. In the re-enactment video, a large team of police arrived to search for the remains of the burned bag and evidence that something had indeed burned in the area, but they found nothing.

The graffiti that was painted by Ben Uliel according to the indictment, was deciphered by a graphologist on behalf of the defense, who said that it is two different handwritings, neither of which is Amiram's. Two shoe prints found at the scene were also not his.

The night of the arson

Orian and Amiram Ben Uliel met as two Hilltop Youth (those who establish illegal outposts in Judea and Samaria) and got married when Amiram was 19 and Orian was 20. After the wedding, their baby Malchut Hadassah was born. At first, they lived in the Geulat Zion outpost, but after the army destroyed their house several times, and with no money left to rebuild it, they moved to a makeshift house inside a truck in the Adi Ad outpost.

"On the night of the arson, we went to bed late, around one in the morning," recalls Orian. "We slept lightly there because we lived at the edge of the outpost and I was afraid of Arab terrorism, and also because Malchut Hadassah was only six months old and I got up to breastfeed several times during the night. My husband was next to me each of these times." At four in the morning, Orian got up to drive her friends to Maayan Baali and left the baby with Amiram.

"The indictment claims that Amiram left the house at 11:00 p.m. They ignored my testimony that we were together all night. In addition, the door of our truck made a lot of noise," Orian says, "There was no way he could leave without me and the baby waking up, and this is something that could be easily verified."

"Before Amiram confessed to the murder, he was detained for 17 days without the right to see a lawyer or talk to family members. At first, we didn't even know why he was arrested. Itamar Ben Gvir, our lawyer at the time, told the Shin Bet: 'If Amiram was arrested on suspicion of arson in Duma, Orian wants to testify. She was with him all the time', but they wouldn't let me testify until they got the confession out of him."

"They also told us that Amiram is not being tortured. Only after they told us they were indicting him did Itamar ask how they could file an indictment without obtaining testimony from me, and then, to make it appear they were being thorough, they took my testimony. Just two hours later, they filed the indictment. They did not call any of the eyewitnesses. They claimed that he had already confessed and this contradicts other findings."

"Ahmed, the four-year-old son who survived the fire, said that he saw the arsonists enter his house after the fire was set and pull his parents out. There were other eyewitnesses who testified that they saw the arsonists leaning over the parents, and eyewitnesses who chased the arsonists and saw them fleeing to the car that was at the scene. Ahmad’s grandfather said at first that it didn't make sense that Amiram was the one who set the fire. After a while, he turned around and claimed that he was convinced that it was him.”

What did the torture consist of?

Amiram Ben Uliel spent two nights of torture in the Shin Bet basements, two nights that came after many days of long interrogations, sleep deprivation, and disconnection from all contact with the outside world.

"They tied him to a chair with his hands and feet tied together under the chair, and his head almost touching the floor. They beat him, spat on him, kicked him and screamed: 'You will talk!' That was the main torture which lasted for about six hours straight each time. They also stretched his arms back and positioned him in a way that made him repeatedly fall on his back.

He knew he was in their hands and had no one to help. He told me he had no choice but to confess: 'I just wanted them to let me go,' he told me. Ben Gvir was only allowed to see him after he had confessed. Amiram told him in that meeting: 'It is better to die than to live.' Ben Gvir said that he was completely broken, in body and soul."

Was Amiram in some way connected to violence against Arabs? Was he talking about getting revenge on them?

"Absolutely not. I was much more of an activist than him. During evacuations, when we were told to leave the house, he would always obey, and I would stay."

Orian believes that the State of Israel had an interest in convicting someone from the settlements of murder. "There were arsons there both before and after that night that were not investigated at all. On the second memorial for Riam Dawabsha, a relative of hers was murdered. There is a violent family conflict there that is ignored and not investigated."

Will there be a happy end?

"God doesn't owe me anything," she says. "He gave me a little girl, a husband, health - that's not to be taken for granted. I pray and beg God to make this situation better. I try not to complain and remember that there are people who suffer more than us.

When you go through a crisis, it makes you sensitive to others, you become a different person. I also see good that grows from this, and Amiram also tries to be happy in prison, to dance and thank God, along with the prayers and the hope that soon we will come out of the darkness into great light."

The Israel Prison Service (IPS) responds

"The IPS allows worship and a religious lifestyle for every prisoner in its facilities in accordance with the provisions of the law and the relevant orders. The prisoner received, at his request, what is required for prayers on the High Holidays, and in his cell, there is a shofar which he uses in the month of Elul and on the holidays of Tishrei. Complaints filed by the prisoner have been examined and rejected more than once by the various legal courts."