How Did Jewish Terror Suspects Evade Shin Bet?

The suspects arrested for the Dawabsheh home deadly arson were labeled dangerous by the Shin Bet before the West Bank attack took place.

The interior of the torched house of the Dawabsheh family in Duma, near the West Bank city of Nablus, December 3, 2015.
Moti Milrod

When the gag order is lifted on the arrests in the deadly firebombing of the Dawabsheh home in Duma, the head of the Shin Bet security service’s Jewish division will have to explain how the cell was able to get through the holes in its net to carry out such an attack.

The Duma attack in July, which killed a toddler and his parents while seriously wounded his brother, cannot be attributed to a lone assailant whose actions could not be anticipated. On the assumption that the Shin Bet is detaining the right people, their names have long appeared on lists of those whose presence in the territories caused it concern. Duma is located in one of the West Bank’s most fraught areas of Jewish-Palestinian friction. The security establishment sees the area’s outposts as a single ideological-territorial entity in which the most extreme settler elements are found. There had already been several violent incidents involving the outposts and the adjacent Palestinian villages.

Before the Duma attack, the Shin Bet had accumulated numerous intelligence reports about “the rebellion,” allegedly led by its No. 1 target, Meir Ettinger, which aims to replace the Israeli government with a Jewish kingdom through violence against Arabs. A document of operational instructions seized from Moshe Auerbach several weeks before Duma included a shockingly accurate description of the way the Dawabsheh house was torched, and described techniques for burning buildings that increased the likelihood of deaths. There had been several previous attacks on Palestinian homes with occupants, though they caused no significant injuries.

How did a not-so-small group of people, already labeled dangerous by the Shin Bet, work according to a plan that was clearly hazardous in a region known to be troublesome and evade capture for four months? Contrary to the prevailing conspiracy theories, both the Shin Bet and Israel Police invest a great deal in fighting Jewish terrorism. Besides the personal prestige that accrues to the relevant unit commanders, the people in these units are ideologically motivated to deal with what they see as a real threat to people’s safety and a moral stain on the state.

The police and Shin Bet are not short of resources. The police have been given dozens of positions to man its anti-terror unit and the Shin Bet has never complained about having people diverted to other missions. In fact, these units have had successes, like the solving of the arson at the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, and the capture of a cell that torched a Palestinian tent encampment (without casualties) two weeks after Duma.

One can point to two problems in the Shin Bet: devotion to what is called “intelligence resolutions,” and the increased use of restraining orders. Both stem from the difficulty in using agents and collecting evidence that will hold up in court.

Thus, instead of a court putting away accused persons for many years, cases have an “intelligence resolution” that results in an administrative order that can range from banning a suspect from the West Bank to full administrative detention. When one reminds Shin Bet officials of various Jewish terror attacks, they hasten to say that those cases had “intelligence resolutions.” For example, the Shin Bet believes that Mordechai Mayer of Ma’aleh Adumim, currently in administrative detention, allegedly set a fire at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, but they have no evidence. Sometimes the Shin Bet is justified, and there is no other way to deal with the attackers. But the accumulating intelligence resolutions and the ease with which they can obtain a restraining order are disincentives for the police and Shin Bet to collect evidence, and have led attackers to believe they are immune to prosecution.

The Shin Bet’s decision to ask for a gag order has raised sky-high expectations that the Duma arson has been solved. But with all due respect to the arrests, they are merely a means, not an end. The veil over the case, however, has generated a wave of rumors and declarations about the investigation. Meretz chairman Zehava Galon, for example, is already talking about bringing the suspects to justice. But there is no guarantee that prosecution of anyone is around the corner.

Along with the questions directed at the Shin Bet, the question repeatedly arises as to why the government doesn’t do more in the realms of education and welfare to deal with the hilltop youth and other right-wing youths on the fringe. The Shin Bet has made some efforts in this direction and the Education Ministry has launched a project called “The Hebrew shepherd,” but there is no body that coordinates efforts to try to locate these youths and set them straight.

Settler leaders have been crying out for years that this is an educational and social problem. They are correct, at least in part. Sometimes it’s better to invest in a good educator than in a police detective.