A blow to the Shin Bet: One of the Duma suspects, who was imprisoned and tortured for 21 days, has been released and is charged only with striking a Bedouin…two years ago. After his release, he described an experience of torture and “murderous blows.”
At the same time, Raz Nazri, the deputy attorney general who visited the prisoners, related that they were in good physical and emotional condition, and that the descriptions of torture that have been quoted in their names are untrue.
We are left with only two possibilities: Either this is one of the Shin Bet’s greatest failures, and perhaps even a crime, or it means that the arsonists who caused the death of an Arab baby and his parents have actually been captured – and according to security forces, some of the recent terror attacks have been acts of vengeance for their crime.
On Wednesday, December 30, the District Court in Lod rejected the appeal of the police force and the attorney general’s office against the Shalom Court’s decision to release one of the suspected arsonists in the Duma case. The young man was released to a ten-day house arrest after posting bail. The prosecution charged him with assault – for an attack on Palestinians that took place two years ago. At the moment, there are no indications that he will be charged with complicity in the Duma case.
Perhaps you, the readers, have to read that paragraph twice in order to understand the implications of this decision. The court has basically dealt a slap in the face to the police. The Shin Bet (or “Shabak,” an acronym for Sheirut Bitachon Klali or General Security Service) has come out of this episode looking highly incompetent. The defendant is one of the suspects in the Duma case, meaning that he was arrested on suspicion of burning down the Arab family’s home and causing their deaths. He was tortured because the law permits torturing murderers. That is, it is legal to torture a prisoner if the torture will extract information that will prevent a future murder. The Shin Bet has been dropping constant hints that the prisoners are clearly the perpetrators of the arson in Duma and that they intended to carry out additional murders of Arabs, so the law permits torturing them. The public, not having any way of knowing the truth, was forced to believe the Shin Bet and to expect to see evidence of its contentions later on.
Throughout the past week, the Shin Bet announced several times that two of the suspects had already confessed that they had committed the arson and that charge sheets against them were being prepared. Not much was said about their intent to commit additional murders in the future. The Shin Bet knew that as long as it was established that they were the arsonists, public opinion would favor the intelligence service and would be against the defendants – and rightly so.
In truth, public opinion was already divided on the subject, since there are some people in Israel who will never believe a word from the Shin Bet. These are people with enough experience to know that the intelligence agents generally chase after nonexistent leads, announcing “facts” that turn out to be completely spurious, and are revealed time and again to have violated the basic civil rights of citizens of the country. This time, as well, not everyone was taken in by the Shin Bet’s press releases, which were themselves uncharacteristic and were prompted by the accusations of its dreadful mistreatment of the prisoners. Many reserved judgment, waiting for time to tell whether the Shin Bet had been justified.
The situation led to a sharp divide within the Bayit Yehudi party, which is supposed to represent the youths who were arrested. Ostensibly, Bayit Yehudi is the party not only of the moderate dati-leumi and right-wing populace, but also of the extreme right. This may not be Nafali Bennett’s view of his party’s purpose, but it is certainly the view of the Tekuma faction within the party, which consists of Minister Uri Ariel and MK Betzalel Smotrich.
Uri Ariel, for instance, announced that he had made a request to the prime minister to disband the “Jewish department” of the Shin Bet. This department is tasked with monitoring the activities of right-wing extremists and has been trying, with great difficulty, to infiltrate that community with its agents. It was this department that planted Avishai Raviv in Kiryat Arba, although it was later discovered that Raviv himself had initiated acts of violence. Betzalel Smotrich, for his part, penned an article for the right-wing newspaper B’Sheva, arguing that even if the youths who were arrested had indeed torched the house in Duma, they should not be considered terrorists – murderers, yes, but not terrorists. He sought to make a clear distinction between the Jewish youths and Arab terrorists. The article evoked a major outcry, and many people in the Knesset and the media called on him to apologize for his statement. Smotrich refused to do so.
These words, which bordered on defense of the actual arsonists, led Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education and leader of the Bayit Yehudi party, to make some unusually harsh statements. Bennett justified all of the Shin Bet’s interrogation techniques, claiming that the means being used against the youths are no more severe than those employed against Palestinians suspected of terrorism. Bennett described the actions of the Jewish detainees as “terrorism and an effort to bring down the state.” He added that he was closely monitoring the Shin Bet’s activities. Bennett was daring enough to make these statements at an event that was not held on his home turf: a conference held by the newspaper B’Sheva.
The minister explained to his listeners how he had investigated the interrogation of the Jewish prisoners: “Both the Minister of Justice and I have examined this matter in depth. People are not being hung from their feet. Everything is supervised and monitored on the closest level. The interrogations are not sympathetic, but there is a reason: They are being silent and we want the information they have; we want to reach those terrorists. I ask you: Would you prefer to believe Itamar Ben-Gvir or to trust Ayelet Shaked, the Minister of Justice of the State of Israel, and the institutions of the government?”
Bennett proceeded to attack the prisoners and everything they represent: “Their goal is to bring down the structure of the state, its ability to govern, and to create a new establishment. For that purpose, they act outside the rules of the establishment they are trying to bring down. Their goal is to dismantle the foundations of the State of Israel. Please understand that the murder in Duma was nothing more than a means to an end. They want to bring down our home; that is their goal. It is the antithesis of Religious-Zionism. They want to dismantle the State of Israel itself. They are terrorists, and the government has decided to deal with them as such.”
Let us return to the court’s verdict of last Wednesday: As soon as the verdict was announced, Honenu (a right-wing organization founded by Shmuel Meidad, an activist from Kiryat Arba who is known by the nickname “Zangi”), which represents the suspects, responded, “This is an outrage. After 29 days of harsh interrogation by the Shin Bet, which included shaking the prisoners, depriving them of sleep, and subjecting them to physical and emotional abuse, we discover that this young man is accused only of being involved in an older, secondary case. We hope that an investigative committee will be established to probe the conduct of the Shin Bet and the law enforcement agencies of the State of Israel in this episode.”
• • • • •
The mother of the youth who was released to house arrest said, “After our son was imprisoned for a month in the Shin Bet’s dungeons, where he was severely tortured on suspicion of involvement in the murder in Duma, we are happy that the district court has rejected the Shin Bet’s ludicrous attempt to keep him incarcerated, which was based on suspicion of his involvement in a secondary incident that took place long ago. We maintained his innocence from the outset, but the Jewish department of the Shin Bet, which was under pressure from the media and from the political sphere, did not act rationally. Instead, they went on a wild rampage, arresting everyone they could think of and subjecting them to brutal interrogation tactics.”
The accusations against the Shin Bet continued: “In their quest to solve the Duma murders, the Shin Bet used ‘scorched earth’ tactics, inflicting physical and emotional harm on our children. Their arguments in court that they were dealing with a ‘ticking time bomb’ were false; they misled the courts, the politicians, and the public. We are happy that the court has put an end to this situation, and we hope that the politicians who were quick to condemn the prisoners will apologize. We call upon the government to establish a parliamentary investigative committee that will examine the tapes of the interrogations so that the truth regarding the acts of torture will come to light.”
From the moment the detainee was released, public sentiment turned against the Shin Bet. If a person who was arrested on suspicion of committing the arson in Duma has now been released, and the prosecution could find nothing to charge with him other than an incident from two years ago, it looks very bad for the Shin Bet. Moreover, if this young man was not involved in the arson in Duma – and he wasn’t – then it means that they tortured an innocent man. The prisoner’s wife protested on his behalf at the beginning of the week, revealing that she had told the Shin Bet repeatedly that on the evening of the fire in Duma, her husband did not leave their home at all.
• • • • •
The married man who was released from prison and stands accused of striking an elderly Bedouin two years ago – which, of course, is a flagrant crime in its own right – was not the only subject of the court’s discussion. The discussion dealt with the other detainees as well and included the prosecutor’s statement. The state prosecutor announced on behalf of the government that it planned to press charges against two of the prisoners for the Duma arson; one of them would be charged with murder.
Now, the fact that one of the suspects will be charged with murder doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be convicted. Even if he has already confessed, that might have been the result of the torture. And the second prisoner will not be charged with murder at all, even according to a representative of the government. What will the charges be, then? Will he be charged as an accomplice to arson? Does that justify 21 days of torture? For now, the remand of both suspects has been extended by five days.
The Shin Bet may have hoped that its announcement would earn it public approval, but that has not happened. It was the suspect who was released who captured the headlines instead – not only because of the Shin Bet’s actual failure to find evidence of his guilt, which will undoubtedly fuel the work of the investigative committee, but even more so because his wife was present in the courtroom and recited Tehillim throughout the proceedings, and because of the baby girl she brought with her to court. The baby and the suspect sat near each other in the courtroom, she in her stroller and he in the dock. Even the most hardened observers at the trial – and even the prosecutors themselves – could not help but be moved to tears by the sight.
The hearing in court offered the suspects’ families another opportunity to bring their family members’ mistreatment to the attention of the media. Once again, the wife of the suspect who was ultimately released spoke the most convincingly. After the hearing was over, the suspect himself added his own descriptions of the brutal abuse he had suffered:
“Every time I fell asleep, they pulled my chin backward. I was in horrific pain. I felt that even though I hadn’t done anything in Duma, I would be prepared to confess to anything they wanted. The pain was so intense that I wanted to die. And they kept telling me that this was only the beginning. They began by kicking me in the legs, and they said, ‘If you don’t confess now, you will confess later, after more violence.’ Gradually, they became even more brutal, and then they had me listen to the screams of the other prisoners being interrogated. ‘It will be your turn in a minute,’ they told me. ‘We will beat you until you confess.’”
But the Shin Bet also received backing from an unexpected source: Raz Nazri, an attorney who serves as the deputy state prosecutor, published a letter last weekend following his visit to the imprisoned suspects. Nazi explained that his visit was prompted partly by the allegations that the prisoners were being tortured, and that the attorney general had decided that he should investigate the matter by meeting with the prisoners themselves. He added that he met privately both with the interrogators and the prisoners.
The most important line in Nazri’s lengthy missive is the following: “Already now, I can state that my impression was that the prisoners are in good physical and emotional condition, and that there is a major difference between what we heard directly from them and what is being said publicly in their names.”
• • • • •
The Shin Bet cannot really claim to have been acting in innocence and good faith. In the case of a “ticking time bomb” – i.e., when a suspect has information that can help prevent a terror attack that is about to take place – and only in such a case, its investigators are empowered by the government to use harsh interrogation tactics, including torture. When the Shin Bet captures a Palestinian activist and they know that he has information about a terrorist who is on the verge of perpetrating an attack, they are permitted to employ unusual force in order to extract that information and prevent a tragedy. The Supreme Court has already established this in rulings against the left-wing organizations that make a habit of defending terrorists.
But was that the case regarding the detained Jewish youths? The details of the case are classified, and a gag order has been imposed on it. The Israeli public has been losing its sympathy for the arsonists as the evidence has mounted that they intended for the fire to cause a loss of life. If Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Bayit Yehudi party, spoke so forcefully against these youths, it is likely that the members of the cabinet were given solid evidence against them. The question now is whether the purpose of the arson was to deter terrorists or to kill Arabs. That will now be the subject of discussion.
While the young men in prison are suffering through some difficult nights, we are all enduring difficult days. The Shin Bet is now facing one of its most difficult tests: Even if the suspects admit to perpetrating the arson, their confession will be of no avail, since it was extracted through torture. Even if they are found to possess information that only the arsonists themselves could have known, which would prove that their confessions are true and that they are the guilty parties, that will also be inadequate to justify the torture. As we noted, Shin Bet investigators are permitted to use torture only in order to prevent a future act of terror, not to compel a suspect to admit to a prior act. In order to justify their actions, the Shin Bet will have to prove that the suspects planned to commit additional murders. And while the intelligence agency has been dropping hints to that effect, nothing short of solid proof will help them.
The only thing that can save the Shin Bet’s reputation now is if it can prove not only that the arson was premeditated, but that the youths in prison clearly intended to murder other Arabs in the future. That is the only way for them to absolve themselves of the crime of torturing the suspects. But it will be very hard for the Shin Bet to prove this, just as it is difficult for us to believe it. One can prove that something happened in the past, but it is virtually impossible to find clear evidence of something that hasn’t happened yet. Even if the youths confess to planning future murders, their admissions will likely not be convincing.
• • • • •
Our faith in the morality of the Shin Bet tends to fluctuate, and our faith in the state prosecution and the police force, in terms of their dealings with right-wing activists, is even lower. Time after time, the law enforcement agencies have made a major fuss in cases where no wrongdoing was discovered. For instance, the state prosecution planned to level charges of incitement against Bentzi Gopstain, the head of the Lehava anti-assimilation movement that seeks to prevent marriages between Jews and Arabs, but it seems that the prosecution is now reneging on that intent. And this past week, the courts acquitted Elchanan Gronen, the resident of Yitzhar who was accused of threatening state prosecutor Shai Nitzan, of most of the charges against him.
Some will argue that “where there is smoke, there is fire,” and criminal charges are never filed unless there are some grounds for them. Others will maintain that the police know what they are doing. To both of these groups, we present the verdict issued this past week by the Shalom Court, which acquitted three out of the four defendants accused of attacking police officers. Not only did the court dismiss the charges, but it also voiced harsh criticism of the police force in general and of the officers who were attacked in particular.
Here is the background to this ruling: On Sukkos three and a half years ago, a group of right-wing youths noticed that a band of Arabs had stationed themselves near the Har Sinai Farm on the outskirts of Sussiya. The group hurried over to drive the Arabs away, but when they drew near, they discovered that the “Arabs” were actually mistaravim, undercover Israeli policemen disguised as Arabs. By that point, though, the encounter had already turned unpleasant, and the four youths were arrested on charges of assaulting police officers and spent a long time in jail. This past week, two of the four were found to be not guilty of any crime, while a third was exonerated after proving that he was not involved in the incident at all. The court accepted the position of the defense – also attorneys from Honenu – that the youths had been responding to a threat to their lives.
“The operation endangered the lives and wellbeing of the police officers and the others involved,” the judge wrote in her decision. “We are left with the impression that the planning of the operation was faulty from the beginning.”
She noted that the settlers were armed, and that the situation had nearly resulted in an exchange of gunfire between the two groups. The fourth defendant, meanwhile, was convicted on the basis of video footage that showed him kicking an undercover policeman whom he knew to be a police officer. But the inescapable conclusion we must draw is that a charge sheet doesn’t always imply culpability, and that the police aren’t always on the correct side of justice.
This leads us to an older story: Four young men, three of them students in the yeshiva tichonit of Kfar Chassidim, were arrested on suspicion of scrawling graffiti on a mosque in the Arab village of Ivtin. The Shalom Court ordered the youths kept in jail, and the District Court rejected their appeals against their remand, although it did reduce the period of incarceration. In court, the representatives of the police indicated that they had a solid basis for pressing charges against the youths. The interrogations were conducted by the police, with the close cooperation of the Shin Bet. These were two bodies that were assumed to be motivated solely by a desire for the truth. The parents of the arrested boys contacted various public figures, claiming that the long interrogations and their sons’ imprisonment in the company of dangerous criminals were designed to break them and were meant solely to appease the Arab populace. The youths’ teachers claimed that they were innocent scapegoats who had been falsely imprisoned, but the media laughed at their protestations. The police claimed to possess evidence of the boys’ guilt, and the newspapers were taken in by their claims. The boys were released one week after their arrests, on the initiative of the police themselves. The regional police commander explained, “We did not succeed in finding evidence against the four, and we therefore decided to free them before the end of their remands.”
This is not to say that the police, the Shin Bet, and the attorney general’s office always lie, but it is clear that we cannot always believe them either.
• • • • •
During the eviction of the residents of Gush Katif, the political right coined the slogan, “A Jew does not evict a Jew.” The stickers bearing those words became popular even among people who did not feel that the Disengagement was a tragic event. Now, in an effort to ride on the waves of admiration for that mantra, new stickers are being handed out across the country bearing a new version of the slogan: “A Jew does not torture a Jew.” But this time, it isn’t working, due to the widespread suspicion that the detainees were indeed the perpetrators of the arson. While it is true that a Jew does not torture a Jew, sometimes, under extenuating circumstances, this rule is broken. And perhaps we can add a slogan of our own: A Jew does not burn an Arab to death.
The Duma scandal is no longer the murder itself, but the interrogations. The fundamental assumption now is that the Shin Bet has exceeded the bounds of reasonable interrogation. Even if the suspects are arsonists – a major “if” – that does not justify the Shin Bet’s actions. As we explained, the torture can be justified only if it can be proven that they murdered the Arab family and were planning to cause additional deaths.
But if they are indeed culpable, we should all be outraged, and these murderers would likely have the blood of their Jewish brethren on their hands. Who can be sure that the deaths of the victims of Arab terror in recent months, from the Henkins Hy”d to Ofer Ben-Ari and Rabbi Reuven Biermacher Hy”d, did not result from this arson?