The rise of Jewish terrorism and the failure of Israel

The rise of Jewish terrorism and the failure of Israel

The New York Times reports:

Gush Emunim [or “Bloc of the Faithful,” a religious political movement determined to settle occupied territories] the and other right-wing groups saw the [Camp David] accords [signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978] as a shocking reversal. From this well of anger sprang a new campaign of intimidation [against Palestinians]. Rabbi Moshe Levinger, one of the leaders of Gush Emunim and the founder of the settlement in the heart of Hebron, declared the movement’s purposes on Israeli television. The Arabs, he said, “must not be allowed to raise their heads.”

Leading this effort would be a militarized offshoot of Gush Emunim called the Jewish Underground. The first taste of what was to come arrived on June 2, 1980. Car bombs exploded as part of a complex assassination plot against prominent Palestinian political figures in the West Bank. The attack blew the legs off Bassam Shaka, the mayor of Nablus; Karim Khalaf, the mayor of Ramallah, was forced to have his foot amputated. [Meir] Kahane [the convicted terrorist and founder of the Kach Party and Jewish Defense League], who in the days before the attack said at a news conference that the Israeli government should form a “Jewish terrorist group” that would “throw bombs and grenades to kill Arabs,” applauded the attacks, as did Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leader of Gush Emunim then serving in the Knesset, and many others within and outside the movement. Brig. Gen. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, then the top I.D.F. commander in the West Bank, noting the injuries suffered by the Palestinian mayors under his watch, said simply, “It’s a shame they didn’t hit them a bit higher.” An investigation began, but it would be years before it achieved any results. Ben-Eliezer went on to become a leader of the Labor party and defense minister.

The threat that the unchecked attacks posed to the institutions and guardrails of Jewish democracy wasn’t lost on some members of the Israeli elite. As the violence spread, a group of professors at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem sent a letter to Yitzhak Zamir, Israel’s attorney general. They were concerned, they wrote, that illegal “private policing activity” against the Palestinians living in the occupied territories presented a “threat to the rule of law in the country.” The professors saw possible collusion between the settlers and the authorities. “There is a suspicion that similar crimes are not being handled in the same manner and some criminals are receiving preferential treatment over others,” the signatories to the letter said. “This suspicion requires fundamental examination.”

The letter shook Zamir, who knew some of the professors well. He was also well aware that evidence of selective law enforcement — one law for the Palestinians and another for the settlers — would rebut the Israeli government’s claim that the law was enforced equally and could become both a domestic scandal and an international one. Zamir asked Judith Karp, then Israel’s deputy attorney general for special duties, to lead a committee looking into the issue. Karp was responsible for handling the most delicate issues facing the Justice Ministry, but this would require even greater discretion than usual.

As her team investigated, Karp says, “it very quickly became clear to me that what was described in the letter was nothing compared to the actual reality on the ground.” She and her investigative committee found case after case of trespassing, extortion, assault and murder, even as the military authorities and the police did nothing or performed notional investigations that went nowhere. “The police and the I.D.F. in both action and inaction were really cooperating with the settler vandals,” Karp says. “They operated as if they had no interest in investigating when there were complaints, and generally did everything they could to deter the Palestinians from even submitting them.”

In May 1982, Karp and her committee submitted a 33-page report, determining that dozens of offenses were investigated insufficiently. The committee also noted that, in their research, the police had provided them with information that was incomplete, contradictory and in part false. They concluded that nearly half the investigations opened against settlers were closed without the police conducting even a rudimentary investigation. In the few cases in which they did investigate, the committee found “profound flaws.” In some cases, the police witnessed the crimes and did nothing. In others, soldiers were willing to testify against the settlers, but their testimonies and other evidence were buried.

It soon became clear to Karp that the government was going to bury the report. “We were very naïve,” she now recalls. Zamir had been assured, she says, that the cabinet would discuss the grave findings and had in fact demanded total confidentiality. The minister of the interior at the time, Yosef Burg, invited Karp to his home for what she recalls him describing as “a personal conversation.” Burg, a leader of the pro-settler National Religious Party, had by then served as a government minister in one office or another for more than 30 years. Karp assumed he wanted to learn more about her work, which could in theory have important repercussions for the religious right. “But, to my astonishment,” she says, “he simply began to scold me in harsh language about what we were doing. I understood that he wanted us to drop it.”

Karp announced she was quitting the investigative committee. “The situation we discovered was one of complete helplessness,” she says. When the existence of the report (but not its contents) leaked to the public, Burg denied having ever seen such an investigation. When the full contents of the report were finally made public in 1984, a spokesman for the Justice Ministry said only that the committee had been dissolved and that the ministry was no longer monitoring the problem.

On April 11, 1982, a uniformed I.D.F. soldier named Alan Harry Goodman shot his way into the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem, one of the most sacred sites for Muslims around the world. Carrying an M16 rifle, standard issue in the Israeli Army, he killed two Arabs and wounded many more. When investigators searched Goodman’s apartment, they found fliers for Kach, but a spokesman for the group said that it did not condone the attack. Prime Minister Begin condemned the attack, but he also chastised Islamic leaders calling for a general strike in response, which he saw as an attempt to “exploit the tragedy.”

The next year, masked Jewish Underground terrorists opened fire on students at the Islamic College in Hebron, killing three people and injuring 33 more. Israeli authorities condemned the massacre but were less clear about who would be held to account. Gen. Ori Orr, commander of Israeli forces in the region, said on the radio that all avenues would be pursued. But, he added, “we don’t have any description, and we don’t know who we are looking for.”

The Jewish Department found itself continually behind in its efforts to address the onslaught. In April 1984, it had a major breakthrough: Its agents foiled a Jewish Underground plan to blow up five buses full of Palestinians, and they arrested around two dozen Jewish Underground members who had also played roles in the Islamic College attack and the bombings of the Palestinian mayors in 1980. But only after weeks of interrogating the suspects did Shin Bet learn that the Jewish Underground had been developing a scheme to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque. The planning involved dozens of intelligence-gathering trips to the Temple Mount and an assessment of the exact amount of explosives that would be needed and where to place them. The goal was nothing less than to drag the entire Middle East into a war, which the Jewish Underground saw as a precondition for the coming of the messiah.

Carmi Gillon, who was head of Shin Bet’s Jewish Department at the time, says the fact that Shin Bet hadn’t learned about a plot involving so many people and such ambitious planning earlier was an “egregious intelligence failure.” And it was not the Shin Bet, he notes, who prevented the plot from coming to fruition. It was the Jewish Underground itself. “Fortunately for all of us, they decided to forgo the plan because they felt the Jewish people were not yet ready.”

“You have to understand why all this is important now,” Ami Ayalon said, leaning in for emphasis. The sun shining into the backyard of the former Shin Bet director was gleaming off his bald scalp, illuminating a face that looked as if it were sculpted by a dull kitchen knife. “We are not discussing Jewish terrorism. We are discussing the failure of Israel.”

Ayalon was protective of his former service, insisting that Shin Bet, despite some failures, usually has the intelligence and resources to deter and prosecute right-wing terrorism in Israel. And, he said, they usually have the will. “The question is why they are not doing anything about it,” he said. “And the answer is very simple. They cannot confront our courts. And the legal community finds it almost impossible to face the political community, which is supported by the street. So everything starts with the street.” [Continue reading…]

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