Alleged Torture of Jewish Terror Suspects Opens Wide Cracks in religious-Zionist Community

Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett hesitated for a while before coming down firmly on the side of the Shin Bet - and against some of his party colleagues.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
Screenshot from wedding video shows men burning a photo of Ali Dawabsheh, a Palestinian baby killed with his mother Reham and father Saad in the arson attack on the family home in Duma.
Screenshot from wedding video shows men burning a photo of Ali Dawabsheh, a Palestinian baby killed with his mother Reham and father Saad in the arson attack on the family home in Duma. Credit: Courtesy of Channel 2
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

The right-wing protesters shouting "traitor" and "a Jew doesn't torture a Jew" outside the home of Education Minister Naftali Bennet last week illustrated the sort of week it was for the country's national-religious population.

It was possibly one of the stormiest weeks the community has ever been through.

Two of the suspects allegedly tortured by the Shin Bet are the sons of national-religious rabbis from the heart of the community's consensus. The father of one is the rabbi of a pre-army preparatory school and signed a petition protesting the killing of Palestinian youth Mohammed Abu Khdeir by three Jews in July 2014. The father of the other is the rabbi of a large religious-Zionist organization.

Both families have called for public pressure on the Shin Bet to go easy on the suspects, following revelations – and Shin Bet acknowledgement – of the harsh measures being used in the interrogations of the youths.

The outrage that such measures are being used on Jews clashes with the religious-Zionist community's automatic identification with the security establishment, leading to a profound loss of balance.

Leaving aside the families, which are trying to protect their imprisoned sons, the recent events have emphasized the religious-Zionist divide between Bennett and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel – between religious-nationalism and haredi-nationalism.

Since the interrogations began three weeks ago, those close to the detainees, including the lawyers they were prevented from meeting with until last week, have accused the Shin Bet of using illegal measures. But their protests had little resonance among the public initially.

A press conference on Thursday last week by attorneys Adi Keidar and Itamar Ben-Gvir, representing the detainees, changed the picture entirely. Their allegations of torture were widely publicized and brought demonstrators into the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Members of Ariel's Tekuma faction in Habayit Hayehudi rallied to the flag and Ariel and Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich sent letters of protest to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In contrast to his Tekumah colleagues, Bennett chose to sit on the fence during the early part of the week. The Tekuma activists hoped that public pressure would force both him and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to pick up the glove and enter the fray.

Shaked is one of the few ministers with leverage over the Shin Bet, by virtue of her position. The service needs the justice ministry to advance laws and programs in which it is interested and Shaked is also a member of the ministerial Shin Bet committee.

Until Monday, Shaked was still uncertain about which way to go. She avoided expressing an opinion, preferring to ask Netanyahu to convene the Shin Bet committee in order to get updates about the investigation.

Then, on Monday night, the coin finally dropped for Bennett. After hearing allegations of sexual harassment and of the suspects being force-fed non-kosher meat, he requested a security briefing.

What he heard in the briefing painted a different picture entirely of what was going on in the investigation. He decided that, for him, the detainees and what they represented were engaged in a war on religious-Zionism.

Bennett's pronouncements on the issue during the course of the week were unprecedented in their vehemence, as well as in the political courage it took to make them.

At a conference of religious-Zionist school principals organized by the Besheva newspaper on Thursday, he sharply criticized Jewish terror, which he said was trying to dismantle the state and to cripple religious-Zionism.

For Bennett, speaking as he did was politically expedient. It enabled him to shake off Ariel, Smotrich and the rest of Tekumah and to make himself acceptable to the mainstream secular-right in the country.

But, first and foremost, the issue is ideological – a fight over the image of religious-Zionism. The critical comments to his speech that he received on Facebook testify to just how difficult the campaign is.

The broadcast of the video from the wedding of Yakir Eshbal and Roni Goldberg, during which celebrants waved rifles, knives and fire bombs and slashed a picture of Ali Dewansheh, the toddler who died in the Duma arson-murder, only served to sharpen the dispute between the two wings of religious-Zionism.

On the one hand, there's the establishment, whose nausea has increased from day to day. The video gave them the justification they needed to deal harshly with the violence of the radical right; a justification that is based on ideology and the fact that the Duma murderers are apparently surrounded by others who support and encourage them.

Even many of those opposed to the Shin Bet found the video repulsive, though they prefer to focus on who leaked it.

There are those who maintain that it was leaked by the Yesha Council, the coordinating body of West Bank settlements, while others believe it was leaked by the Shin Bet.

The fact that Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon showed the video at a meeting he held before it was broadcast on TV feeds the conspiracy theorists. Past experience teaches that leaks are sometimes random and not every leak is necessarily the fruit of brain-storrming by strategic consultants.

But the truth is no longer relevant. Along with the claims that the Shin Bet released the video in order to justify its use of torture, other, more troubling, allegations are also being made, according to which the objective of the leak was to besmirch religious-Zionism as a whole (even though the head of the Shin Bet belongs to the camp.)

It's too early to assess the long-term repercussions of the affair on religious-Zionism. Many details are still unavailable and are likely to be published in the coming weeks.

In addition to the arson-murder at Duma, a much wider infrastructure will be revealed of activists who have the goal of dismantling the state and replacing it with a theocratic kingdom. The leaders of the underground network are the sons of rabbis or youths from distinguished families – the heart of the religious-Zionist mainstream – who have gone through a process of radicalization and found themselves on the hilltops.

In the meantime, opposing voices are being heard from two interesting figures in the religious-Zionist camp. One is Zvi Sukkot, a resident of Yitzhar, who was detained in the past for the arson of a mosque. Sukkot made waves with an article in which he criticized the religious-Zionist mainstream for what he said was its condescending attitude to the fringes – an attitude from those who gave birth to the Jewish underground of the Eighties and who themselves break the law with their unauthorized building.

Another article, by Itai Zar, the founder of the Havat Gilad illegal outpost and at one stage one of the most prominent figures in the activities of the hilltop youth, asked the youth to halt their anti-Arab hate crimes, known colloquially as "price tag" attacks.

"In general, I believe in positive activity – our price tag should be building, agriculture, getting married and having children, another settlement, another kindergarted," Zar wrote.

"We want revenge, but it must be national – revenge on our enemies for all the blood that has been spilled; revenge that will teach our enemies that the shedding of Jewish blood doesn't go unpunished."

In contrast to Sukkot, Zar expressed faith in the religious-Zionist mainstream. "I have faith in the leadership, in the army and in the security forces that they will do what is good for the People of Israel," he wrote.

"And I thus beseech the leadership: Give our youth hope! Build settlements! Show the Zionist public that Zionism is not dead and that building Eretz Yisrael is not something to be ashamed of."

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