If an Extremist Jewish Underground Exists, Why Can't the Shin Bet Stop It?

The security service’s claim that a ‘pacifier-and-diaper’ underground is behind recent Jewish terror attacks strains credibility.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Masked Jewish settlers clash with Palestinians in the West Bank village of Assira al-Kibliya, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011.
Masked Jewish settlers clash with Palestinians in the West Bank village of Assira al-Kibliya, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2011. Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

With regard to Arabs, the Shin Bet security service is from Mars. With regard to Jews, it’s from Venus – and downright whiny, judging by its media briefing on Sunday. The organization that’s supposed to find solutions is instead finding excuses, of which the most pathetic is that a juvenile cult was behind last week’s horrific arson attack that killed a Palestinian infant and seriously wounded three family members in the West Bank village of Duma.

The Shin Bet is selling the public a fairy tale about a youth group that’s trying to destabilize the state to the point of overturning it and replacing it with a state ruled by halakha (Jewish religious law). It knows where they are and how many they are, and in some cases even who they are. But we can’t expect it to know everything – after all, they’re too young to be in national databases.

This scarecrow of a pacifier-and-diaper underground is necessary to justify the frightening label of “political subversion.” If they’re suspected of political subversion, and not just criminal disturbances of the peace, then it’s permissible, by law, to use exceptional means against them.

But this explanation is unconvincing. The hope that their activity will set off a chain reaction ending in the government’s collapse could equally apply to the social-justice protesters of 2011, or many Histadrut labor federation strikes. This isn’t an underground movement plotting to seize the government’s power centers and television stations, in order to broadcast messages from the revolutionary council.

One shouldn’t underestimate the lethal significance of throwing firebombs; indeed, such an underestimation is what enabled the murderers to burn the Dawabsheh family in Duma. But what does this have to do with a Children’s Crusade against “the kingdom of evil”? What’s the connection between a social network devoid of any of the characteristics of an organization, like a leader, chain of command or discipline – which is precisely why it’s so hard to declare it an illegal organization – and the crime in Duma?

In short, where is the underground? And if it actually exists, why didn’t the Shin Bet, aided by the army and police, hunt it down before the murder and forestall the crime?

Graffiti reading 'revenge' found at the scene of the arson terror attack in Duma, July 31, 2015.Credit: AP

Veteran security officials are divided in their assessment of how well the Shin Bet’s Jewish department functions. Some say that, over the past 15 years, the agency has bolstered it by importing intelligence experts and investigators from other agencies, and improving its cooperation with the operations department.

Others say that due to its target population, the unit is isolated and characterized by weak, hesitant leaders – inferior not only to their colleagues in the Arab department, but also to their opponents: Israeli veterans of the army or other security services who know their methods and are willing to tolerate brief stays in jail, with its showers, beds and meals, before returning to their hilltops.

Some senior department officials have been kicked upstairs to aviation security posts overseas. And some Shin Bet officers have refused to work in the department for ideological reasons, without this hindering their advancement in the agency.

We don’t know which of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s confidants advised him to appoint Yoram Cohen as head of the Shin Bet in 2011, rather than Yitzhak Ilan. But we do know that Rabbi Haim Druckman intervened on Cohen’s behalf.

In the 1970s, Druckman was a leader of the Gush Emunim settlement movement – a group that destabilized Israel, forced the settlements on the government and thereby contributed to the public’s loss of trust in their leaders. Today, Gush Emunim is the establishment, and a new generation is running around the hilltops. But they are all his grandchildren.

Back then, the Shin Bet acted belatedly and hesitantly against a truly dangerous and subversive underground – which even planned to blow up the Temple Mount, but was quickly pardoned by the government. And now, it’s having trouble dealing with the tyros.

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