The investigation by the Shin Bet security service into the killing in October of Aisha Mohammed Rabi, a Palestinian woman who died when her car was stoned near Nablus, was brought out into the open on Sunday. The development occurred just days after five juvenile suspects in the case — yeshiva students in the settlement of Rehelim — were arrested. The Shin Bet security agency was forced to lift the gag order on a major portion of the details of the case against the backdrop of an escalating battle between the agency and the supporters of the detained suspects over the Shin Bet’s conduct of the investigation.
A previous investigation into suspected acts by Jews in the 2015 arson killing in the West Bank Palestinian village of Duma of three members of the Dawabsheh family also stirred some controversy among religious Zionists. For his part, Naftali Bennett, who at the time chaired the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi party, condemned the killings and was joined by several other Knesset members from his political camp, but the Jewish suspects in the case attracted considerable support in the settlements and among the far-right, which intensified as reports proliferated of the use of “special methods” (in effect, a relatively restrained system of torture) by the Shin Bet in its interrogations.
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This time the circumstances are a bit different. The Shin Bet hasn’t been given permission to use extraordinary means. But the reaction to the arrests of the five suspects, all of them minors, has been very different. Not only have no settler leaders — or actually even members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet — condemned the attack or demanded that those responsible for it be brought to justice. Instead, there have actually been widespread protests over the arrests and the investigation.
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The more recent case surfaced against the backdrop of the April 9 Knesset election and the efforts of several political parties to garner votes from the extreme right — parties that are concerned about failing to attract enough votes for any seats in the next Knesset. The same holds true in explaining how the violence against the police last week in the evacuation of the Amona outpost and the public hazing that the prime minister meted out to his own military secretary passed with barely a protest or reservation on the right. The military secretary, Brig. Gen. Avi Bluth, who has roots in West Bank settlements, was reprimanded for delaying passing on an order to halt the evacuation until it was too late.
When it comes to arrest of the five suspects in the Rabi killing, Netanyahu has been completely silent, and in the absence from the current cabinet of Moshe Ya’alon, who was defense minister in 2015, investigators are left without any practical, open backing from the political leadership.
The hundreds protesting outside the homes of the prime minister and other cabinet members, the vocal demonstrations outside the court and statements on the issue by rabbis are all part of well-planned and timed effort by the suspects’ lawyers. In this context, the claims this time of torture of the suspects appear to be exaggerated. The protest has a few clear goals: taking the investigation of the suspects out of the hands of the Shin Bet and transferring it to the police; planting the idea among members of the public that the crime in this case was essentially retaliation and not a terrorist attack committed on ideological grounds; and, as a practical matter, heading off the extraction of confessions from any of the suspects.
The public broadcaster Kan has reported that on Saturday, October 13, the day after the stoning attack, far-right activists from the settlement of Yitzhar went by car to the yeshiva in Rehelim, despite the religious prohibition against driving on the Sabbath. Among those reportedly in the car was Meir Ettinger, who had spent a considerable time three years ago in detention without trial during a period when the Shin Bet accused him of being a ringleader in a group whose extremist ideology provided inspiration for attacks on Palestinians.
The aim of the Sabbath trip to Rachelim was clear: briefing the young people prior to their arrest and interrogation, to head off the prospect that they would break in detention and reveal details of the stoning incident. Beneath the surface — and beyond vocal protests over the detainees’ rights, their innocence and religious devotion and over allegations of plotting in basement Shin Bet torture rooms — this is also the goal of the current public campaign.
No sect of monks
Shin Bet interrogators are no sect of monks. The sham prison setting that Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson reported on in connection with the investigation of extremist right-wingers in the Duma murder case and in the arson attacks on mosques and churches three years ago illustrates the lengths to which the Shin Bet and police are willing to go to obtain a conviction. (When it comes to Palestinian terror suspects, the means employed are even more extreme).
Shin Bet investigations, regardless of whether their focus is ideologically motivated offenses, require strict legal supervision. But we would be best not to overreact to the alligator tears being shed by the current suspects’ defense lawyers, who include an outspoken follower of the late racist Kach leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane. It is not democracy that is of concern to them. They have never made similar calls to stop an investigation over violations of suspects’ rights when the suspects weren’t from the extreme right. Their entire aim is to halt the investigation before any of the suspects break and to warn the Shin Bet against launching investigations into any other unresolved cases involving terrorist attacks committed by Jews.