When the Shin Bet really doesn't want to
Repeated Shin Bet failures in solving cases of Jewish terrorism disturb and endanger the fabric of Israeli democracy, and the Shin Bet knows this well.
Three young men are being held in jail in Israel, two Muslim Palestinian juveniles and a Jewish Israeli. The two Palestinians are suspects in the murder of a Jewish settler. The Israeli is suspected of committing arson at the mosque in the northern Israeli Bedouin town of Tuba-Zangaria.
Of course there is a clear, fundamental and apparent difference between the two cases. The Palestinians are suspected of throwing stones at a car last month, as a result of which Asher Palmer and his infant son were killed. The Israeli is suspected of arson at the mosque, which resulted in damage to the building and to holy books but no loss of life.
There is another hidden difference, however, related to the Shin Bet security service, which has responsibility for handling both cases. In the case of the Palestinian juveniles, the Shin Bet managed to very quickly obtain the necessary intelligence to locate and arrest the suspects. Under interrogation, with the assistance of the usual procedures, the security service personnel managed to extract confessions from the suspects, who admitted carrying out the act. This is undoubtedly another impressive Shin Bet success.
When it comes to the young Israeli from the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, who is one of the group dubbed the militant "Hilltop Youth," his arrest occurred by chance, and was not carried out by the Shin Bet. The Shin Bet has also not been employing special procedures in interrogating him. Otherwise, it would have been possible to bar him from meeting with a lawyer, but this was not done. The lawyer, at least at this point, has advised his client to maintain his right to remain silent.
These details are the big difference. The Shin Bet has again and again managed to foil acts of terrorism or solve cases of terrorist acts that were committed by Palestinians in the territories as well as by Israeli Arabs. It has repeatedly failed, however, in doing the same when it comes to subversive organizing and the carrying out of pogroms and terror attacks by Jews. The mosque in Tuba-Zangaria is the fourth incident involving arson. It was preceded by one in Ibtin in the Western Galilee and two others in Palestinian villages in the West Bank. And then over the weekend, the reports surfaced of desecration of Muslim and Christian graves in Jaffa. Anyone who commits arson at a mosque or desecrates graves isn't simply trying to exact revenge. He is also seeking to provoke a religious war.
The repeated Shin Bet failures in solving cases of Jewish terrorism are both disturbing and endanger the fabric of Israeli democracy. The Shin Bet knows this well. It has been confronting a phenomenon that has originated among religious settler zealots for the past three decades. Following the terrorist attacks committed by a Jewish terrorist organization against West Bank Palestinian mayors in the early 1980s, the American news weekly "Time" claimed that the head of the Shin Bet at the time, Avraham Ahituv, was not in a hurry to investigate and solve the attacks because he didn't want to anger then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The report sparked anger and denials in Israel.
In fact, three years later, the Shin Bet managed to arrest the members of the Jewish group, who had also planned to blow up buses carrying children as well as the mosques on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The accused were put on trial. They were sentenced to extended prison terms but released after serving relatively short portions of their terms.
This represents a systemic failure. Those who committed pogroms against Jews in Russia claimed "the Czar is with us." In Israel, those committing pogroms benefit from the lenience of judges, who more than once have made light of such deeds and released the perpetrators or imposed light sentences. Suspects have also benefited from incompetence that appears to have been deliberate on the part of the police and the army.
The Jewish Israeli press also plays a role in that it adopts the euphemisms of the settlers, who call the offenses "price tag" incidents, as if they were dealing with merchandise in a supermarket. The truth has to be stated. What the settlers are doing to their Palestinian neighbors is terrorism in every sense of the word.
In all the years that the Shin Bet has fought Jewish terrorism, its senior officials have contended that it is difficult to infiltrate nationalist bands of Jewish religious zealots because their operations are very compartmentalized and they are trained on how to face interrogation. These are simply excuses. The Islamic Hezbollah and Hamas organizations are also religious zealots. They, too, study their enemy but nonetheless the Shin Bet and the intelligence agencies manage to infiltrate them and obtain accurate intelligence information about them.
The three heads of the Shin Bet over the past decade, Avi Dichter, Yuval Diskin and the current head, Yoram Cohen, are the product of elite commando units. They have certainly not forgotten the saying that there is no such thing as not being able to do something - just not wanting to.