No Grounds for Outlawing Racist Group, Concludes Israeli Security Agency

Israel's defense minister had hoped to ban the far-right Lehava organization, which follows a Kahanist ideology.

Members of right-wing organization Lehava protesting the wedding of a Jewish-born woman and a Muslim man in Rishon Letzion, August 17, 2014.
Ofer Vaknin

There are no grounds for declaring the far-right group Lehava an illegal organization, the Shin Bet security service has concluded.

Last December, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon asked the Shin Bet to draft an opinion on Lehava, whose self-proclaimed mission is “to prevent assimilation in the Holy Land.” He made the same request of the Defense Ministry’s legal advisor, attorney Ahaz Ben-Ari.

Ya’alon submitted this request after 21 Lehava activists, including the group’s leader, Benzi Gopstein, were arrested on suspicion of inciting to violence. More than seven months later, however, the prosecution has yet to decide whether to indict any of them. Gopstein himself was released three days after his arrest.

After conducting its own investigation of Lehava for several months, the Shin Bet concluded that at this point, there isn’t enough evidence to justifying declaring it an illegal organization. Its review was based partly on intelligence gathering and partly on legal analysis.

Nevertheless, the agency added, should additional evidence be found, it will reconsider its position.

It generally takes the Shin Bet up to six months to review an organization’s activities and decide whether grounds exist for outlawing it.

Declaring Lehava to be an illegal organization would enable the authorities to confiscate property from its members. It would also allow the police to enter any place where such property is located, or any place that is suspected of containing documentation of the group’s activities. Declaring it a terrorist organization would enable even more far-reaching steps against the group, including indictments against the organization and its members.

Ofer Vaknin

Ya’alon has previously said he would support declaring Lehava an illegal organization, as did former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Under laws originally promulgated by the British Mandate, which governed the area prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948, the defense minister is empowered to declare any group an illegal organization if it engages in incitement or propaganda “directed against the Government of Israel or its employees” or undermines Israel’s constitution. A group can be declared a terrorist organization if it “carries out violent actions meant to cause death or injury in order to realize specific goals.”

The law says that people convicted of membership in a terrorist group can face sentences of five to seven years, while those convicted of supporting such a group can face sentences of up to three years in prison, or a fine.

Two Lehava activists, brothers Shlomo and Nahman Twito, were convicted of torching the Jewish-Arab Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem in November 2014, and last month, they were sentenced to 24 and 30 months in prison. The Shin Bet, which investigated that attack, concluded that its goal was to “put opposition to coexistence and assimilation at the top of the public and media agenda.”

Lehava has been very publicly involved in many demonstrations against both Arabs and African asylum seekers. But the Shin Bet believes Lehava activists were also involved in several violent incidents, and that the group follows a Kahanist ideology, as reflected in the slogan the Twitos spray-painted on the Hand in Hand school when they torched it – “Kahane lives.”

In response to Haaretz’s request for comment, the Shin Bet said in a statement that Ya’alon had asked the agency to look into declaring Lehava an illegal organization in response to a request by MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union). After examining the available intelligence and analyzing the relevant legal issues, “The conclusion, at this stage, is that there is insufficient evidence to declare the organization illegal,” it said. “The Shin Bet will continue to monitor the group’s activities. If there is sufficient evidence to make such a declaration in the future, the Shin Bet will make the necessary recommendations after consulting with the legal authorities.”

The State Prosecutor’s Office said that deciding whether a group should be declared an illegal organization is the security services’ responsibility. It added that it “did not receive any requests from the security services for legal advice on this matter.”