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Shin Bet May Need to Take Off Kid Gloves With Jewish Terror Suspects

The interrogators will have to apply methods previously used only against Palestinian suspects — if they want to catch Jewish terrorists.

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A Palestinian man inspects a house after it was torched, in Duma, near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 31, 2015.
A Palestinian man inspects a house after it was torched, in Duma, near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 31, 2015.Credit: AP

The suspected murderers of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma this July may end up setting a dubious precedent in the annals of Jewish terrorism. If the investigation continues to make little headway and none of the suspects breaks and confesses, this is liable to become the first time the Shin Bet security service has used “exceptional” interrogation tactics against Jewish suspects since the High Court of Justice ruled in 1999 that such tactics are usually illegal.

Over the last 15 years, the Shin Bet and the Shai (West Bank) District police have investigated more than 10 cases of suspected Jewish terror – physical attacks on Palestinians, arson attacks on Palestinian property and attacks on mosques and churches. Most of those cases remain unsolved.

Shin Bet investigators have repeatedly complained that the methods used in interrogating suspected Jewish terrorists are less aggressive, and therefore less effective, than those used against suspected Palestinian terrorists. Even if “exceptional” measures are used against only some Palestinian suspects, the very fact that the threat exists, and the suspects know interrogators won’t hesitate to use harsh measures if they believe there’s no other option, often intimidates the suspects and helps persuade them to talk.

But Jewish suspects were always treated more gently. In one case more than a decade ago, right-wing extremists complained that interrogators used to read Haaretz’s literary supplement aloud to keep them from sleeping — a method that bears no resemblance to the harsh treatment often meted out to suspected Palestinian terrorists.

The Jewish suspects usually arrive at their interrogations well prepared thanks to workshops run by veteran right-wing extremists on how to withstand such interrogations. The workshops are based on a guide published by one such veteran, Noam Federman of Hebron over a decade ago. In many cases, the Jewish suspects know that if they all remain silent, there will be no way to convict them.

When the Shin Bet and the police do manage to crack a Jewish terror case, it’s usually thanks to a combination of forensic evidence from the crime scene and technology. Following last summer’s arson attack against the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, for instance, the suspects were arrested mainly thanks to photos collected from about 400 security cameras throughout the country, which proved that they had traveled from the center of the country to the shore of Lake Kinneret. In addition, forensic evidence was found at the site.

But in the case of a series of shooting attacks that killed at least seven Palestinians during the second intifada (2000-05), the agencies failed to convict the suspects, all West Bank settlers. Some were ultimately convicted in a different case, of planting a bomb in a Palestinian school. Yet even though one suspect confessed and led investigators to a large arms cache in the outpost of Adei Ad, near the settlement of Shiloh, and ballistic tests matched some of those weapons to the crimes, the suspect later recanted his confession, and most of the suspects went free due to insufficient evidence.

This time, however, a confluence of interests has created exceptional pressure on investigators to solve the murder quickly and produce indictments. First, senior officials from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down have repeatedly vowed that Israel, being a state where the rule of law prevails, will solve the murder and bring the perpetrators to justice. Second, Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen’s term ends in less than six months, and leaving the Duma murder unsolved would leave a stain on his legacy. Third, and apparently most important, West Bank Palestinians have high expectations that the murder will be solved.

The Duma attack, and the fact that the Shin Bet didn’t quickly nab the suspects as it usually does in cases of Palestinian terror, sparked angry charges by Palestinians that Israel was protecting the perpetrators. And according to the Shin Bet itself, these charges served as a pretext for the current wave of Palestinian violence that began more than two months ago.

After a gag order on the suspects’ arrest was partially lifted last Thursday, their defense attorneys protested the continued blackout on details of the investigation and accused the Shin Bet of exploiting it to keep the suspects hidden, prevent them from contacting their lawyers and families and subject them to harsh interrogation methods. The next few days will apparently be critical for the investigation. And if they don’t produce results, investigators are liable to take even harsher measures against the suspects.

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