Israel Was Soft on Jewish Terrorists in the 1980s - Will History Repeat Itself?

The Jewish extremists of Israel’s past were quickly welcomed back into society as journalists, political activists and settler leaders. But experts say today’s offenders will not enjoy similar leniency.

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Police in Jerusalem arrest extreme right-wing activist Yehuda Etzion, a former Jewish Underground member, after he violated the ban on Jews praying on the Temple Mount.
Police in Jerusalem arrest extreme right-wing activist Yehuda Etzion, a former Jewish Underground member, after he violated the ban on Jews praying on the Temple Mount.Credit: Michal Fattal
Aimee Amiga
Aimee Amiga
Aimee Amiga
Aimee Amiga

In the early 1980s, 28 members of the Jewish Underground – a terror group that targeted Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem – were arrested and given lengthy prison sentences. Yet within seven years of being jailed, they had all been released, returning to the limelight as either respected journalists, political activists and settler leaders, or slipping under the radar to lead private lives.

Israel now faces a new wave of violent extremism perpetrated by Jews. Last August, Israeli security services uncovered a Jewish extremist group called The Revolt, which sought to topple the government through violent attacks on Palestinians. Three of its members were placed under administrative detention. While two have since been released, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon last week extended by four months the detention of the group’s leader, Meir Ettinger (a grandson of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, from the banned Kach party).

Last month, four Jewish Israelis were indicted for attacks on Palestinians, including 21-year-old Amiram Ben-Uliel. He was charged with three counts of murder following the arson attack on the home of the Dawabsheh family in Duma last August. Last week, meanwhile, two Jewish Israeli minors were sentenced to life and 21 years in prison, respectively, for the 2014 murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

Will today’s violent Jewish extremists enjoy the same leniency as their 1980s predecessors?

“It is uncommon for Jewish terrorists to receive such lenient treatment,” says Ami Pedahzur, coauthor with Arie Perliger of the book “Jewish Terrorism in Israel” (2009). The fact that many members of the Jewish Underground had their jail sentences commuted was mainly thanks to their closeness to the political establishment at the time, Pedahzur says. The terrorists were leaders in the settlement community, served in the army and had strong connections with politicians, none of which applies to the modern Jewish terrorists, he adds.

Prisoner exchange

The Jewish Underground carried out and planned a series of attacks against Palestinian targets between 1980 and 1984, including blowing up the cars of two Palestinian mayors – who were maimed in the blasts – and mounting an assault on the Islamic College in Hebron, killing three students. The group also planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock and bomb five Arab buses in Jerusalem, but its members were arrested in the spring of 1984 before they could carry out these attacks.

Members of the group claimed their actions were intended to avenge the acts of Palestinian violence against settlers and deter future aggression. They were frustrated by what they saw as the security establishment’s failure to effectively deal with Palestinian violence toward Jews, and claimed that this had prompted them to take the law into their own hands.

But they were also motivated by existential fear, Pedahzur explains: After the Camp David Accords with Egypt were signed in 1978, they were afraid the settlement project would soon be eradicated.

Menachem Livni, Shaul Nir and Uzi Sharbaf were sentenced to life in prison for murder, while the remaining suspects received sentences ranging from four months to seven years behind bars.

The idea of pardoning members of the Jewish Underground had already been raised among the political echelon in 1984 – less than two months after the organization was uncovered – but gained momentum almost a year later, after Israel released 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in a prisoner swap deal (“the Jibril exchange”) with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. That deal prompted many prominent figures – ranging from social activists to chief rabbis – to increase pressure for pardoning the Jewish terrorists.

Polls at the time showed that the vast majority of Israeli citizens supported their release. Thousands of supportive letters were sent to the prisoners in jail, mass rallies were held in which Jewish Underground members were depicted as heroes, and a petition calling for their early release garnered 300,000 signatures (around 7 percent of the population at the time).

Broad public support for the pardons extended beyond the right-wing, with some Labor Party members joining those calling for the Jewish terrorists’ release.

By December 1990, every Underground member had been released: 12, including the three lifers, had their sentences commuted by President Chaim Herzog (the father of current Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog). Thirteen were released early for good behavior, while only three members served their full jail terms. The lifers had spent less than seven years behind bars.

Since their release, some members have remained politically active. Haggai Segal is editor-in-chief of the right-leaning Makor Rishon newspaper; Zeev (“Zambish”) Haver is a leader in the Yesha Council of settlements and secretary-general of the settlement movement Amana (a cooperative that builds homes in the West Bank); and Nathan Nathanson is a political associate of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.

Others remain active in the West Bank settlement project. Livni works as a farmer near Kiryat Arba, while Moshe Zar established the Ramat Gilad and Havat Gilad settlement outposts. Yehuda Etzion was a founding member of the Ofra settlement and of Hai Vekayam, a movement advocating for Jews’ right to pray on the Temple Mount.

A different picture

The centrality of Jewish Underground members to the Gush Emunim settlers’ movement and their close ties to politicians ultimately helped their efforts to achieve clemency. Today’s violent extremists are a different story. They are outliers of the settlement movement, and the religious Zionist mainstream can gain political capital by rejecting them, says Gideon Aran, a sociology and anthropology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

By antagonizing the violent Jewish extremists, and highlighting that it is in conflict with them, the religious Zionist movement – including the Habayit Hayehudi party – can creep further to the right while staying in the mainstream, notes Aran.

There is also a key difference in the way the Israeli public could rationalize the targets of each group, explains Pedahzur. The Jewish Underground attacked Palestinian mayors – members of the Palestine Liberation Organization who were hostile to settlers. The public could perceive these figures as legitimate targets, he says, whereas today’s violent Jewish extremists have indiscriminately targeted civilians – including an infant and a woman – which the general public cannot accept.

The two groups also have different attitudes toward the state, adds Pedahzur. While the Jewish Underground accepted Israel’s legitimacy – and even sought to strengthen it through the settlements – the modern violent extremists do not. In fact, he says, their ideology is an evolution of Kahanist theology: they reject the values of democracy and the Zionist ideal of secular Jewish statehood, and believe instead in “destruction on the path to redemption,” he notes.

Not only that, says Aran, but the modern Jewish extremists abhor all authority – be it political or religious. “They are yeshiva dropouts. They are not well-versed in halakha [Jewish religious law] and do not idolize rabbis,” he says. They also despise those whom they call “statists” – people who are loyal to the state, obey the law, pay taxes and serve in the military. Given this, their chances of being integrated into society are slim, Aran asserts.

While Pedahzur is confident that those involved in the Duma case will be harshly punished, he is skeptical as to how hard the courts will crack down on other violent Jewish extremists – those who have targeted property, not people. “The public won’t punish the ‘hilltop youth’ for having extreme ideas,” he says, referring to the young extremist settlers who create illegal outposts and frequently attack Palestinians. As a result, they may continue conducting crimes against property – perhaps even escalating to attacking people – and pass down their ideology to younger generations, he adds.

An Israeli army vehicle guarding a field near Kiryat Arba belonging to Menachem Livni, a former leader of the Jewish Underground and today a farmer and activist in the settler movement.Credit: Emil Salman

“We saw this with Yigal Amir,” Pedahzur says. The right-wing extremist who assassinated then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 “became the main character, despite not being the only one involved. Yet the others received much lighter sentences and were reintegrated into their communities.

“Amir became the poster child for how we punish our own rebels. The way he is being punished helps the public feel good about how we treat our criminals,” Pedahzur adds. “But his imprisonment didn’t do anything to address the real issue: to reduce the problem of radicalization and the animosity felt toward those who wish to give up part of the land.”

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