The End of the Beginning for Jewish Terror

The state found itself forced to use torture to find the Duma arsonists. Should more have been done earlier to thwart the phenomenon?

Right-wing activists reenact torture methods they claim were used against Jewish terror suspects.
Moti Milrod

The filing of indictments Sunday in the Duma arson, which killed three members of the Dawabsheh family last summer, looks like a significant success by the Shin Ben security service after a thorough, comprehensive and complex investigation. The apparent solving of the case also refutes the earlier accusations that the Shin Bet was trying to deliberately drag out the investigation so as not to reach the truth.

But it raises another question in retrospect: Had the state done everything it could before the July 31 attack to prevent such incidents, given the information it had already collected on the ideological gang that produced the main suspects – Amiram Ben-Uliel and a minor known as A.?

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It seems that by comparing the methods and means used before the attack, which made it clear that the group was not averse to taking Arab lives, and the moves made after, provides a clear answer. Taking a tougher stance against these young right-wing extremists while implementing an appropriate systematic approach to dealing with the phenomenon could have stopped the gang before they advanced from vandalizing empty Palestinian homes to burning people to death in their sleep.

The Shin Bet knew almost immediately where to search for the murder suspects. Two days after the Duma attack, several senior Shin Bet operatives spoke with a few journalists. What they said then was almost completely congruent with what was announced Sunday. It was in early August that they had identified a group of hilltop youth led by Meir Ettinger, the grandson of Rabbi Meir Kahane, centered around some of the outposts in the Shilo Valley. Already then the Shin Bet was able to describe in detail the new ideological manifesto of Ettinger’s group, whose members were nurtured by the radical, violent vision of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, but who then broke away from Ginsburgh’s disciples, explaining that his approach was not firm and ambitious enough.

A relative holds up a photo of Ali Dawabsheh in the torched house in Duma, July 31, 2015.
AP

Ettinger himself was known to the Shin Bet for a while. Even before Duma the security service had sought an administrative detention order against him, but was refused and had to make do with an order keeping him away from the West Bank. It was upgraded to an administrative detention order only after the Duma murders.

In September came Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s unfortunate statement from which it was understood that the identity of the Duma attackers was known. This led to a wave of ridiculous conspiracy theories, including that the defense establishment was deliberately covering up for the murderer because he was a Shin Bet plant in extremist right-wing circles.

Meir Ettinger, the alleged head of a group of Jewish extremists, appearing in an Israeli court, August 2015.
AFP

What had actually happened was something else: The Shin Bet and the police had identified the ideological platform of the “new Jewish terrorists” from Ettinger’s ideas and a document that echoed those ideas, which had been written by another activist, Moshe Auerbach. That document included operational principles as well as practical recommendations on how to carry out attacks without being caught. The security agencies had also mapped out the group that was being inspired by these writings, comprising nearly 100 young people aged 15-24, most of whom floated between the Shilo Valley outposts and the nearby Baladim hill.

The hard core of the group comprises between 30 and 40 people; these were the activists prepared to use violence against Palestinians. These operatives were not willing to simply carry out “price tag” operations to deter the government from evacuating settlements or imposing restrictions on the extreme right, but were prepared to initiate methodical operations whose surreal objective was to undermine public order and eventually bring down the entire democratic regime, which would be replaced by reestablishing the kingdom of Judea on the ruins of the state.

These activists, as described in Auerbach’s document, worked in small groups of three to five people. The ideological leaders did not get reports on their activities, either before or after the fact. The cells tried to remain strictly compartmentalized. That’s how the Shin Bet was unable to penetrate deeply into the group.

The investigators’ main difficulty was identifying the specific suspects in the Duma attack. Toward the end of November the investigation moved from the undercover, intelligence-gathering stage to the overt stage of arrests and interrogations (albeit under very broad gag orders).

Kedumim, one of dozens of West Bank settlements that had a large part of its debts erased.
Tali Mayer

For nearly two weeks most of the suspects refused to talk to investigators. Then Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein gave the Shin Bet a green light to use torture during the interrogations. It’s best not to hide behind euphemisms like “special interrogation methods.” We’re talking about torture, even if it may not have reached the extent of the unsavory imaginings of some of the suspects’ lawyers. The use of torture, under the supervision of the courts, broke A., who apparently led investigators to Ben-Uliel. Ben-Uliel eventually confessed and reenacted the crime, presumably under similar pressure.

These far-reaching methods had not been used against Jews in the past. Immediately after the Duma attack dozens of restraining and administrative detention orders were issued against the hilltop youth activists. Later there was torture. All this was facilitated by describing the group as a “ticking bomb” that was liable to carry out other attacks if its members were not arrested. While national leaders have used plenty of emotional and harsh rhetoric against the extreme right, these were unprecedented measures.

Ben-Uliel, the primary suspect, had been living in a bus in the Adei-Ad outpost. This is the same outpost where a bunker was discovered containing weapons allegedly used in murders of Palestinians by Jews at the beginning of the Second Intifada. The settler responsible for the bunker was arrested, confessed to various things under questioning and then retracted. There was no torture then, and no murder charges, either.

It isn’t clear why it had to come to torture. More than four years ago the country seethed when hilltop youths broke into an Israel Defense Forces base near Kedumim, attacked soldiers and policemen and hit a lieutenant colonel. The prime minister, the defense minister and the top Israel Defense Forces brass fell over themselves condemning the incident, but almost nothing was done to rein in the radical right.

First and foremost, the educational route was neglected. Hundreds of teenagers, mostly boys, but girls as well, dropped out of school and continue to live in the hills and radicalize their positions, without any coordinated effort by the state to help them. The courts, in their relative apathy, also contributed to the feeble effort against Jewish terror. Last but not least, the politicians took their time to respond. Some, like Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, denounced the Shin Bet and called for the closure of its Jewish Division even as the current investigation continued.

The Shin Bet took advantage of this investigation to solve other incidents of arson against Palestinian property that ended with no casualties. Still, the agency believes that there are still 20 to 30 radical activists at large who champion violence against Arabs and could carry out other attacks. Given that the Shin Bet will have to work hard to make sure that the evidence and confessions it obtained in the Duma case hold up in court, it seems that these indictments constitute the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end of this new phenomenon of Jewish terror.