Israel Prize winner Zeev Sternhell was lightly injured yesterday when a pipe bomb exploded outside his home in Jerusalem, in what police suspect could be a new campaign by right-wing extremists to target prominent left-wingers.
Public Security Minister Avi Dichter called the incident "a nationalist terror attack apparently perpetrated by Jews" and said the police would not rest until "those terrorists" were behind bars.
"We should see the explosive as aimed at killing," Dichter said, adding that the attack "takes us back to the days of [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin's assassination."
Professor Sternhell walked out of his home in a quiet Jerusalem neighborhood shortly after midnight to shut a courtyard gate when the bomb went off, lightly wounding him in one leg, Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said.
Outside Sternhell's home and in nearby streets yesterday, the police found fliers offering NIS 1.1 million to anyone who killed members of left-wing human rights movement Peace Now. This led to the suspicion that Jewish terrorists were behind the pipe-bomb attack, due to Sternhell's harsh criticism of West Bank settlers and their harassment of Palestinians.
The police stressed that the bomb was not meant to intimidate but was a murder attempt.
After the attack on the professor, the police have beefed up security around the home of Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer.
"If this was not an act committed by a deranged person but by someone who represents a political view, then it is the beginning of the disintegration of democracy," Sternhell said yesterday from his hospital bed in the capital's Shaare Tzedek Medical Center.
He said that "the incident illustrates the fragility of Israeli democracy, and the urgent need to defend it."
"On the personal level, if the intent was to terrorize, it has to be very clear that I am not easily intimidated," he said. "But the perpetrators tried to hurt not only me, but each and every one of my family members who could have opened the door, and for that there is no absolution and no forgiveness."
Sternhell, an internationally renowned expert on the history of fascism, was awarded the country's highest honor, the Israel Prize, earlier this year. The award drew fire from West Bank settlers and their supporters, who unsuccessfully petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to block it.
Kadima leader and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni condemned yesterday's attack, saying that the incident was "intolerable, and cannot be glossed over."
At a ceremony marking the Rosh Hashanah holiday at the Foreign Ministry, Livni said that "Israel is a lawful state and is populated by a society with values. It is the responsibility of the government and Israeli society to renounce such phenomena as soon as they rear their heads."
Senior political figures also expressed outrage at the news of the attack on Sternhell, which has touched a nerve given the country's history of political violence, they said.
"We are returning to the dark era of pipe bombs aimed at people, in this case against a very gifted person who never hesitates to express his opinion," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said. According to the chairman of the Knesset's internal affairs committee, Labor MK Ophir Pines-Paz: "The attack on Prof. Sternhell is a cowardly, terrorist act by those with no sense of justice." He urged the police and Shin Bet security service to strive to capture the perpetrators quickly and ensure that they receive hefty prison sentences.
"They'd better not talk to us about a few wild weeds," Meretz chairman Haim Oron said. "These people appear on the right wing."
"This thuggish and dangerous act is the result of the continuing see-no-evil approach toward the vicious violence against soldiers and police officers and anyone else who doesn't agree with the brutish section of the extreme right wing," Oron added.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, an activist with a fringe settler group calling itself the National Jewish Front, said Sternhell was an irrelevant figure and that he did not believe settlers were behind the attack. "I don't denounce this incident, but say categorically that we are not involved," Ben-Gvir said.
Sternhell had recently received threatening phone calls, but the bomb attack on him took the Shin Bet and police by surprise. They had no intelligence of a terror group targeting left-wing activists.
A special police team started taking statements from neighbors of the Sternhell family. The police believe the perpetrators stayed in a house nearby in the past few weeks, studying Sternhell's movements, and that passersby and neighbors must have seen them.
"There are hundreds of peace activists in Jerusalem. We have no sign of any intention to harm anyone specific and cannot protect so many people without more specific information," a police source said.
Ofri Ilani contributed reporting.
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