Analysis |

The Difference Between Identifying Jewish Terror Suspects and Putting Them on Trial

The gag order and terse hints in the media may create a mistaken impression that authorities are close to fully solving the cases involving Jews who have committed anti-Arab terrorist acts.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
A Palestinian inspects the Dawabsheh family's house after it was torched in the village of Duma near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 31, 2015.
A Palestinian inspects the Dawabsheh family's house after it was torched in the village of Duma near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 31, 2015.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It’s that original Israeli invention, an overly sweeping gag order – which somehow still allows a degree of maneuver in getting around it – that is apparently behind a rather strange recent media phenomenon. On one hand, headlines over the past two days announced dramatic progress in the investigation of cases of anti-Arab terrorism, followed by what was described as another development in the investigation.

Contrary to unfounded assumptions and the accusations of politicians and columnists, Jewish terrorism has been confronted. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have followed developments closely, and the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yoram Cohen, has pressed his staff to produce results.

Just days after by far the most serious case, the firebombing in July of the Dawabsheh family’s home in the West Bank village of Duma, there were assessments in the media about who was responsible. Most of the acts of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, along with arson attacks against churches and mosques in the West Bank and inside Israel proper, it was said, were the work of one specific particularly extreme group acting within a larger group of young West Bank Jewish settler activists, including thugs who have committed revenge attacks in response to army action against them or in response to the acts of Arabs.

Since the attack on the Dawabshehs’ home, which killed three members of the family, the volume of restraining orders limiting the movements of extreme right-wing Jews and orders of house arrest and administrative detention have more than doubled, and now number more than 40.

But the court-issued gag order on the press, along with terse hints in the media, may actually now be creating a mistaken impression, fueling public expectations that the authorities will fully solve all the acts of Jewish terrorism soon. There is a considerable difference between intelligence services figuring out who was responsible for a particularly serious politically-motivated crime and amassing sufficient evidence to put suspects on trial and convicting them. In most prior cases involving the conviction of Jewish perpetrators motivated by ideology, the Shin Bet, Israel Police and State Prosecution have relied on physical forensic evidence providing a sufficiently convincing link between defendants and the acts with which they were charged.

A second scenario, obtaining a confession from one suspect who is prepared to finger his accomplices, is harder to obtain. Past experience shows that extreme right-wing suspects generally insist on remaining silent under questioning and have been trained with precision on how to stand up to pressure exerted by the Shin Bet.

It therefore appears that expectations of a quick break in these cases should be curbed, despite the major importance of such a break and the hope that it would in some measure quell Palestinian violence in the territories. (Jewish settler violence, particularly cases of Jewish terrorism, have been noted by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet as one of the main causes of the current outbreak of violence.)

Past experience, however, is not encouraging. At the beginning of the second intifada, which broke out in 2000, there was a series of shooting attacks committed by Jews against Palestinians in the West Bank in revenge for terrorist killings of settlers. The Shin Bet believed at the time, after an extended period of investigation, that they had identified those responsible. The security service held several suspects in detention for a long period. In the course of the investigation, they obtained the agreement of one member of the group to serve as a state’s witness and found a large cache of weapons in a bunker in the West Bank settler outpost of Adei Ad, which to this day is a focal point of extremist right-wing violence.

Although the weapons suspected of being used in those attacks were located, the suspect retracted his agreement to testify and the case ended without anything to show for it. The suspects in those cases are still at liberty even though the authorities know who they are. The question is whether law-enforcement efforts to get at the new generation of extremists will end the same way, or whether the Shin Bet and police will obtain solid evidence that will hold up in court and lead to indictments and convictions.

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