After a typical delay, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared support for the Shin Bet security service regarding the controversy over interrogating the Jewish suspects in the Duma arson killings. The affair, which has stirred emotions on the far right for two weeks now, has spilled over into the settler establishment and thereby into the Likud Central Committee.
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So now it threatens to become a political affair. Netanyahu has joined Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett in an attempt to repel criticism of the Shin Bet.
Netanyahu first referred to the situation Monday when he told Likud Knesset members that the interrogations were being carried out in accordance with the law. That came after a complaint by Likud MK Miki Zohar about the treatment of the detainees, suspected in the arson-killing of three members of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank.
Netanyahu has supported Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen and his staff, whom he said were doing important and excellent work. He said the Shin Bet’s activities in the Duma affair were also being carried out with the close supervision of the justice system.
In the controversy over “unusual means” – in effect limited-intensity torture – the left-right division isn’t automatic. Far rightists who in ordinary times don’t give a thought about the way the Shin Bet extracts confessions from Palestinian terror suspects are going out of their way to condemn the torture.
Meanwhile, rights groups like the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel – a key target of right-wing organization Im Tirztu’s venomous campaign – are condemning the use of these means regardless of the detainee’s ideology. The political mainstream, for now at least, is siding with the Shin Bet.
Speaking to Army Radio, Habayit Hayehudi chief Bennett didn’t mince words. He described the killing of the Dawabsheh couple and their toddler as a terror attack, warned of the danger posed by Jewish terrorists and fully supported the Shin Bet’s actions. He did all this despite settlers’ anger and the questions posed by his partners in Habayit Hayehudi’s Tekuma faction, Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich.
Bennett aligned himself with Im Tirtzu in the attack on left-wing groups. But on the issue of the interrogations he’s taking a position identical to that of Ya’alon, who for several days has endured harsh criticism from the extreme right, occasionally bordering on violence, due to his support of the Shin Bet.
Even before Bennett and Netanyahu, former Shin Bet chiefs issued statements supporting their successor, Cohen. As usual, Jacob Perry, Ami Ayalon and Yuval Diskin voiced their support on Facebook. Also, Ayalon, Carmi Gillon and Avi Dichter were interviewed on the Ynet website.
This is a unified front sending very similar messages. It wouldn’t be a surprise if some of the former Shin Bet chiefs were responding to a request by the agency.
The gag order on most of the case’s details makes it hard to offer an in-depth analysis on any evidence. The press conference Tuesday by Itamar Ben-Gvir, the attorney of one suspect, provided new information to which the Shin Bet did not respond, claiming that it could not violate the gag order.
Ben-Gvir, like the attorneys of other suspects, claims his client was tortured. For the first time in three weeks, Ben-Gvir has been allowed to meet with the young suspect; during that time, the attorney debated with the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Shin Bet on when that prohibition period ended.
Two reasons for the right-wing protest have emerged. One was the leaking of complaints about torture after the first suspects were permitted to meet with their lawyers. The second was a race against time between the interrogators and the suspects: an attempt to end the use of “unusual means” via judicial intervention and a meeting with a defense attorney before a confession was extracted.
In trials of Palestinians accused of terrorism there are often serious claims of torture during interrogations, but the courts almost always accept the state’s position and approve the confessions.
Immediately after the killing of the Dawabsheh family at the end of July, Netanyahu and Ya’alon demanded that the Shin Bet solve the affair quickly, using all means necessary.
Cohen, whose term is due to end in May unless it’s extended for a sixth year, is now receiving sweeping support from the politicians he’s subordinate to. But Cohen must also be aware that if things go wrong later, he’s the one who will be held responsible – and that the politicians will have no problem leaving him alone on the ice to face far harsher criticism from the right.