Begging Their Pardon

The President's Residence has not witnessed such an uproar over so-called "Jewish national prisoners" since then-president Chaim Herzog significantly reduced the sentences of members of the Jewish underground in the late 1980s, and when, in the late 1990s, former president Ezer Weizmann did so in the case of Yoram Skolnik.

Dozens of rabbis, academics and politicians - from Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District (the Yesha Council), to Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and other members of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization - have beseeched President Shimon Peres to pardon brothers Yitzhak and Danny Halamish of the Ma'ale Rehavam settlement outpost.

The brothers were sentenced to seven and eight months in prison for aggravated assault and injury of Palestinians.

The court ruled that their behavior was shameful, but those who embrace the brothers, many of whom have lost all faith in the courts, have adopted a different narrative. They are certain that this is a story with a Kafkaesque twist.

On a wintry Shabbat four and a half months ago, the Halamish brothers, members of Ma'ale Rehavam's residents' security squad, were alerted by Baruch Feldbaum, head of security at the nearby Sde Bar ranch. Feldbaum asked them to help him disperse Arab shepherds who had entered the ranch's pastures. Sde Bar is a therapeutic ranch, operated by the Welfare Ministry, which shelters youth who lack appropriate familial support. They use the ranch's pastures. Three years prior to this incident, Koby Mandell and Yossi Ish-Ran, children from the settlement of Tekoa, were murdered nearby. Their killers have yet to be caught.

A fight erupted at the site. The Arabs' version of events, which the court adopted, later also rejecting an appeal of its ruling, is summarized in the ruling of Jerusalem Magistrate's Court President Amnon Cohen: When they were summoned to Sde Bar, the brothers brought weapons and a dog. A fight with Palestinian shepherds broke out in the land that adjoins their settlement outpost. The brothers hit a few of them. After that, Danny and Yitzhak Halamish fired a few shots to the ground, only a few meters from the legs of the Palestinians who stood near them.

As a result of those shots, the four Palestinians were slightly wounded by rocks and shards of earth that sprayed toward them. One of the Palestinians was attacked by the brothers' dog.

'Shameful' behavior

The brothers vehemently deny that they fired their weapons. They do not understand why the police failed to conduct ballistic examinations of their guns, which would either reinforce or refute their claims.

Danny and Yitzhak Halamish also believe that they acted in accordance with regulations, as individuals summoned by an official charged with the authority to prevent trespassing and as victims of a Palestinian assault who were defending themselves. They also refuse to express remorse regarding "violations they did not commit" or their conduct during the incident.

The court chose not to believe them. It ruled that their behavior was "shameful" and "grave," and that they used unnecessary violence while taking advantage of their position as members of the settlement's security squad.

Attorney Yoram Sheftel, who represented the brothers in their appeal in the District Court, says that given the fact that police failed to conduct even the most elementary ballistic examination of their guns, to ascertain whether or not they had fired them, sufficient doubt was raised in the appeal to acquit them.

"That is how courts act in response to this kind of doubt in other cases," he says.

Sheftel does not mince words. He uses scathing language to express what the brothers' friends cautiously whisper: "In the case of the brothers, the conduct of both the prosecution and the court derives from a profound loathing of all settlers on the part of a judicial system that is secular, Ashkenazi [referring to Jews of European descent], anti-Zionist, and post-Jewish."

In an ad campaign to seek their release, mounted by 18 committees and right-wing non-government organizations, the brothers are referred to as "prisoners of Zion in Zion."

"We are also guilty of the desire to defend our lives and our homeland," writes a reserve battalion commander in one ad. A businessman, he says that he is providing the Halamish brothers' families with monthly salaries, and will continue to do so "as long as the state forbids them from earning a living only because they are good Israelis."

Last week, Peres received a delegation of Professors for a Strong Israel, led by Professor Eli Pollak, in his official residence. Most of the meeting was devoted to the Halamish brothers. Pollak noted that the third defendant in the case, Baruch Feldbaum, who was sentenced to 12 months in prison, has already been pardoned and did not spend a single day in jail.

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinic Organization, wrote to the president that pardoning the brothers would create a distinction between acts of terror, whether or not committed by Jews, and errors in judgment, as in this case. Shaul Goldstein, head of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, believes, "Since Mandell and Ish-Ran were murdered, we have to beware of so-called 'innocents.'"

He also addressed the president. He concludes that the Halamish brothers were impelled to react by "the reality." Rabbi Yuval Cherlow wrote to Peres that the two were not criminals.

Until the president makes a decision, the case of the Halamish brothers further "contributes" to the weakening of the status of the courts in Israel's national-religious sector. Many of them believe that legal proceedings in court are a rigged game.