How a Group of Jewish Terrorists Ended Up in Israel's Halls of Power

A new documentary series about the Jewish Underground charts the movement’s terrorist activities in the 1980s and the influence its members now exert on modern politics. Director Shai Gal hopes his show serves as a wake-up call

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Yehuda Etzion, one of the members of the Jewish Underground interviewed in Shai Gal's new documentary series.
Yehuda Etzion, one of the members of the Jewish Underground interviewed in Shai Gal's new documentary series.Credit: Courtesy of YES Doco

Jewish terrorists are troubled, rebellious youth who have somehow gone astray – distant from Israel’s core values. That’s the stereotype most Israelis have of their fellow citizens who commit violent acts against Arabs in pursuit of their far-right political agenda.

A new documentary series, “The Jewish Underground” (airing on the Yes Doco channel in Israel), aims to shatter that persistent myth once and for all, telling the story of the country’s most notorious Jewish terrorists who were – and remain – anything but outsiders.

The three-part series, created by veteran Israeli journalist Shai Gal, relates (and recreates) how a group of determined Jewish settlers committed acts of violence in the early 1980s, blowing up cars, shooting into crowds, planting explosives on buses, and stockpiling explosives with the aim of destroying the Dome of the Rock (part of the site known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif).

The story of the Jewish Underground isn’t new. But, some 30 years on, it is finally being seen in its full and chilling context.

>> Revealed: How Israel first thought to deal with "Jewish terror"

The same men who committed those acts still retain the same ideology and agenda. But today they sit in the center of power in Israeli politics – a far more effective place from which to work toward their vision of a renewed biblical Jewish kingdom with a Third Temple on the Temple Mount.

As former Jewish Underground member Yehuda Etzion – convicted and imprisoned for his participation in terror activities, and one of the series’ stars – tells Gal: “We are aiming at the same target. We are just using different means.”

As a young member of the movement, Etzion participated in the plot to blow up the Muslim holy site on the Temple Mount, hoping it would lead to a holy war that would result in Jewish victory.

Today, he is the leader of a group that works to promote Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount and to revive ancient traditions like animal sacrifice. Indeed, Gal’s series opens with a nighttime reenactment of the Passover sacrifice, the flames of the pyre flickering on Etzion’s face.

"Jewish Underground" director Shai Gal in Jerusalem, June 20, 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

Messianic fervor

The idea for the series came to Gal as he spent a sabbatical year at the University of Michigan, studying extremist movements. For his research he read “Dear Brothers” by Haggai Segal – now a senior Israeli journalist but who, in his 20s, pleaded guilty to involvement in the planting of bombs that maimed two West Bank mayors. (He eventually served two years of a five-year sentence.)

The group that became known as the Jewish Underground was an offshoot of the settler movement that evolved into a vigilante cell and began to carry out revenge attacks on Palestinians.

They were driven by a mixture of frustration that the Israeli government had failed to quell Palestinian violence against Jews and fear that the 1978 Camp David Accords could be a first step toward ending the settlement enterprise, alongside the messianic fervor of members like Etzion.

The group’s first operation (for which Segal was jailed) occurred in June 1980: Car bomb attacks targeting the mayors of Nablus and Ramallah; a third mayor was spared when the device was found before he started his engine.

>> The Mossad operative who formed the Jewish underground in North Africa

Israel’s vaunted intelligence services failed to crack the case, and three years later, in July 1983, students at the Islamic College in Hebron were gunned down by Underground members, in revenge for the murder of a yeshiva student. Three people were killed and a further 33 students and faculty members were injured or wounded.

A year later came the plot that proved to be the group’s downfall: an attempt to blow up five buses carrying Palestinians. The movement's activities were finally detected by the Shin Bet security service, which arrested them after they had placed the bombs on the buses.

It was only later that the authorities realized the actual extent of the danger the group posed. They had accumulated enough explosives to blow up the Dome of the Rock, which they believed would pave the way toward building the Third Temple.

Like most Israelis, Gal knew the basic story of the movement. However, he said he was astonished when he really dug into what had happened and was amazed it had never been fully documented on film.

“The details were crazy,” he says. “These guys actually broke into an army camp in the Golan Heights in 1982, stole over 1,000 kilograms [2,200 pounds] of explosives – mines that were being stored for time of war – and built 27 explosive devices, using 750 kilos of C4 intended to blow up the Temple Mount. This was super-serious.”

Another revelation for Gal: The fact that the core leaders of the vigilante cell came from the mainstream, not the fringes, of Israeli society.

“These men were part of the mainstream settler leadership. One was the secretary of Gush Emunim. Another was working at Hebron and Kiryat Arba’s city hall. One was a pilot in the Israel Air Force. There were several sons-in-law of important rabbis, sons-in-law of senior IDF staff. These were not outsiders.”

What really grabbed Gal’s attention was when he took a close look at where some of the key perpetrators are today. Two are key settler leaders: Ze’ev (“Zambish”) Hever is secretary-general of Amana, a cooperative that builds settlement homes in the West Bank; his stated goal is to settle a million Jews in the next decade. Another Underground leader, Nathan Nathanson, is a close political associate of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who is also education minister.

“Once I understood that members of this Jewish Underground who had been convicted for terrorist activity, are now holding positions of power in the highest levels of the Israeli government, I knew it was a story I had to do,” said Gal.

‘Law & Order: Jewish Underground’

The first two episodes are structured like an episode of “Law & Order.” The detective story plays out in the initial episode, as Jewish Underground members describe in detail exactly how they came together, planned and perpetrated their crimes. Meanwhile, the senior Shin Bet officials charged with stopping them – the head of the Shin Bet’s Jewish unit, Carmi Gillon, and head of the Jerusalem and West Bank District, Jacob Perry – describe their frustration with the cat-and-mouse game of chasing them, with their targets repeatedly eluding capture.

“They were very serious and very sophisticated,” concedes Gal. “Think about it: It took the Shin Bet’s A-team four years – 30,000 hours of investigations – to catch them.”

The second episode reviews the trials, convictions and sentences of the Underground members, in a case led by a state prosecutor who would eventually rise to head the Supreme Court: Dorit Beinisch.

>> Former Jewish Underground convict receives more than 1.3 million shekels from Israel

While Beinisch was successful in winning her cases, public pressure – including letters and petitions calling for the convicted terrorists’ early release – chipped away at the consequences of the crimes. Prison conditions were lenient; sentences were reduced for good behavior; and some enjoyed pardons that drastically shortened their sentences.

A "Law & Order"-esque recreation of crimes plotted by the Jewish Underground movement, in Shai Gal's documentary.Credit: Dan Peretz

Even the three Jewish Underground members convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the Islamic College shooting had their sentences commuted by then-President Chaim Herzog. By December 1990, all of them were free after serving less than seven years in prison.

That is where the third episode hammers home the story’s central message: The Jewish terrorists emerged from their relatively short sentences to fanfare and celebrations, unrepentant and buoyed by the support they had received from their community. In subsequent years, they have reestablished themselves in positions of influence, moving the country in their desired direction.

“None of them ever said anything to me like, ‘I was young and stupid when I did these things,’” Gal notes. “They are proud of what they did.”

In an illustration of how the Jewish Underground’s agenda has gone mainstream, Gal’s film concludes with a “Seekers of Zion” convention in the Knesset held in 2017, honoring Temple Mount activists.

Leading political figures like Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan showed up to laud the activists’ cause with slides of a rebuilt Temple – the Dome of the Rock nowhere in sight – projected on the wall.

Religious devotion

Gillon, who went on to head the Shin Bet in the 1990s, ruefully admits to Gal that, in his view, the Jewish Underground’s side has won the battle between the competing visions of a Jewish and a democratic state. “They are more devoted to their idea,” he says of the former Underground members.

“It’s exactly what you see with Hamas or Hezbollah,” he notes. “A religious person who believes he is commanded from on high can’t compromise on that command. A secular person is more pragmatic to begin with. But they have one goal: To turn Israel into a Jewish state governed by religious Jewish law, to perpetuate the occupation and to rescind liberal laws.”

Gal says it was important to assemble the full sweep of these men’s stories over 30 years. Events, he says, move so swiftly in Israel that it is often impossible for people to understand the larger nature of what is happening.

>> If an extremist Jewish underground exists, why can't the Shin Bet stop it?

“Even those like me, as a correspondent who has covered news here for years, operate in a world where we only see parts of the story. We don’t get to see the big picture," says Gal. "Even senior people in politics who watched my documentary have told me it has helped them see what has really happened here over the last 30 years.”

Gal grew up on a kibbutz, where he discovered his journalistic curiosity by accidentally overhearing some of the sessions his psychologist mother had with her patients.

“I knew I loved listening to people’s stories,” he says. Following his army service (he is still a major in the Tank Corps reserves), he entered university, where he “discovered the power of television journalism” and knew he wanted to make a career in it.

After 13 years as a reporter for Channel 2 News, Gal is now a correspondent on the award-winning, prime time investigative TV show “Uvda” (“Fact” in Hebrew).

Over the years, his in-depth reporting has often had an impact on events in Israel: His profile on Naama Margolese, an 8-year-old girl terrorized by ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh in 2011, led to a backlash that resulted in hundreds of thousands demonstrating. A heart-wrenching story he aired on poverty among Israel Defense Forces soldiers was credited with improving their conditions.

In this case, telling the story of the Jewish Underground may not have immediate results. But Gal hopes it will give the Israeli public pause when they consider the background of some of today’s power players and their impact on Israel’s current reality.

It is a lesson, he believes, that isn’t exclusive to Israel at this particular moment in time. As extremist movements gain strength around the world, he was told at a recent European screening that his documentary’s message is relevant in many countries.

“This isn’t just an Israeli story,” he concludes. “It’s the story of how extreme ideology finds its way into mainstream politics.”

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