TEL AVIV — Shortly after 3 a.m., on the evening of August 19, a resident of Rehovot called the local fire department station to report a fire in a nearby field. Then a neighbor reported a strong smell of gas coming from below his apartment.
The firemen who rushed to the scene, about 15 miles south of Tel Aviv, found clear evidence that someone had tried to ignite a 6,000-liter cooking gas tank. “To make sure it would work, those lunatics threw some rags, well soaked with inflammable fluids, over the pipe that was released,” Rehovot Fire Department Commander Shimon Gamliel told the Forward.
Authorities quickly concluded that the incident was the work not of run-of-the-mill arsonists but of would-be terrorists opposed to Israel’s pullout from Gaza, who were targeting fellow Jews. The perpetrators had spray painted the walls with threats and political declarations: “Sharon will be assassinated.” “Yossi Sarid Beware.” “The land of Israel will never march alone.” “Your faithful sons will always be with you.” “More to come….”
Whatever the outcome of the Rehovot case — two suspects have been arrested already — police and security officials said that Jewish terror has jumped as a result of disengagement, reaching a severity previously assigned only to Palestinian violence. In addition to the failed Rehovot attack, Jewish gunmen killed eight Arabs in two separate incidents in recent weeks, and potentially lethal acts such as pouring oil or nails on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway became almost routine in the weeks before the pullout.
“I can only assume that things will not cool down soon after the end of the implementation of the disengagement,” said Hezy Kallo, former head of the anti-subversion section of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet. Kallo, whose division tracked the efforts of Jewish militants, added, “Whether it turns out
that the plan to blow up the building was real or not, there should be great concern about the fact that Jewish terror has reared its head of late and at the present does not refrain from terror attacks in which blood will be shed. I would not underestimate the danger as some of the public media does recently.”
One Shin Bet official who spoke to the Forward said that the “common denominator in all these recent terror attacks and botched plans that ended with arrests, both against Jews and Arabs, is that behind all of them lies distorted thinking, according to which the shedding of blood will stop disengagement.”
This trend, the Shin Bet official added, “stems from a messianic perception which demands that one must do anything, truly anything, in order to foil disengagement.”
Less than 24 hours after authorities foiled the Rehovot plot, Eliran Maman, 19, and a minor were arrested at their homes on suspicion of lighting the fire and spraying the walls. At their apartments, police were said to have found a variety of combat material, including explosives and ammunition, along with far-right propaganda leaflets. The two youths were well known to local police as activists opposed to the Gaza disengagement plan and had been arrested in recent months for obstructing highways. Both were ordered held for a week by the special court established to hear cases involving violence during Israel’s dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank.
Israeli officials this week were debating whether the estimated 70 anti-disengagement protesters still in custody should be pardoned. During the Tuesday session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at which the issue was debated, the police’s senior intelligence officer, Dudi Cohen, warned that right-wing extremists might try to harm public officials, though the Gaza settlers already have been evacuated.
In a recent interview with Israel’s Channel 2, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz did not rule out the possibility that there are more right-wing activists in Israel planning the murder of Arabs and other acts of terrorism. Mofaz announced that in light of the growing danger posed by far-right activists, Israel’s security establishment would consider administrative detention for activists on recommendation of the Shin Bet.
Mofaz said the security establishment is examining the allegation that a Jewish terrorist organization is operating in the West Bank settlement of Kfar Tapuah, a stronghold of the extremist Kach movement founded by the American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane. Eden Natan-Zada, a 19-year-old AWOL Israeli army conscript, lived in the settlement for several months before killing four Arabs on a bus in the Israeli Arab town of Shfaram on August 5.
“From the little we know after the terrible murder, it seems that several other young people in the Tapuah area shared in the knowledge that Natan-Zada was about to go and commit an act of this kind,” Mofaz was quoted as saying. “They have also been arrested by the police. As far as I understand, they had certain knowledge of this matter. We will know in the future whether this was organized or whether this was an act by lone perpetrators.”
“In meetings before the disengagement, I said that what worried me more than anything was this very extreme act by someone we don’t know about and that while we are sitting here and discussing the disengagement, he sits and plans this murder,” Mofaz said. “For us, this was an emphasis on the entire system — to get to the very people who are liable to commit an extreme act. To my regret, that did not happen. We need to learn from this and take all possible measures so that this will not happen again.”
During the first days of the investigation, it was revealed that the army had information suggesting that Natan-Zada was unstable. His mother told the Israeli media that she had alerted her son’s direct commander that Natan-Zada was carrying a weapon and residing in Tapuah. And the Shin Bet had some intelligence linking him to militants in the West Bank settlement but failed to share the information with the army.
Recently it was revealed that Maman, the suspected Rehovot arsonist, had attended Natan-Zada’s funeral.
In general, officials in the Shin Bet anticipated that there would be Jewish terror attacks aimed at preventing disengagement. However, the working assumption was that extremists would try to attack the prime minister or blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque on the Temple Mount.
Army officials had specific warnings regarding attacks such as the one in the West Bank town of Shiloh, where a Jewish settler wrestled a gun from a security guard and killed four Palestinians. But according to military analysts quoted in the Israeli media, the information was mainly held in classified documents. Shin Bet officials deny that any such intelligence was withheld.
The army and Shin Bet predicted attacks on the basis of intelligence, indicating that Jewish terrorist groups were being formed. However, it appears that there was no specific warning about the terrorist attacks in Shfaram and Shiloh.
“A Jewish strike in an effort to stop at once a political process is a possibility that definitely has to be taken into account,” Kallo said. The former Shin Bet official added: “The potential threat exists, but it’s difficult to define. One time it’s a young man from Herzliya, another time a young man from Haifa, then from the territories, then from the ideological hardcore. The key to pre-emption lies in intelligence and in the circles of protection, but it has to be taken into account that if it’s a lone individual, the prospects are very close to zero.”
Indeed, Shin Bet officials have found it hard over the years to infiltrate the most extreme right-wing cells. Even when they arrest Jewish extremists, interrogators generally find it hard to crack them during questioning.
One exception was Shahar Dvir-Zeliger, suspected of being a member of a new Jewish terrorist cell. He was arrested with a few of his settlement neighbors in early 2004. While under interrogation, Dvir-Zeliger said that a well-known leader of the so-called hilltop youth — religious teenagers in the West Bank who have set up illegal outposts and clashed with Israeli forces — had planned an attack on the Temple Mount. Dvir-Zeliger named two more members of the hilltop youth who were involved the Temple Mount plan, one from the northern West Bank and the other from the Hebron area. Dvir-Zeliger said that several different cells were planning an attack on the Temple Mount. According to the plan, no cell would know what the other ones were doing.
Eventually most of the suspects in this latest Jewish terrorist ring were released, and there were no new arrests. The Shin Bet was unable to prove anything, but its investigators remain convinced that the detainees were connected to a series of shooting attacks against Arabs, and that there was discussion about plans to attack mosques in general and specifically on the Temple Mount.
To prevent an attack on the Temple Mount mosques, the Shin Bet is monitoring the hilltop extremists, circles that attract newly religious people, activists of the outlawed Kach movement, yeshivas where young people study Kabbalah, criminals who have drawn close to religion and have access to combat material, and mentally unbalanced individuals who have fallen under extremist political or religious influences. In the past two weeks, as a result of the Jewish terror attacks, the Shin Bet, police and army established a joint intelligence desk that would collect, compare and analyze such information.
Since the disengagement plan was launched, the Shin Bet has again become increasingly concerned over the possibility that Jewish extremists might try again to strike at the Temple Mount to thwart additional Israeli withdrawals. “Rabbis were informed of this concern,” said a high-ranking Shin Bet official. “Past experience showed us that everyone who has wanted to strike at the Temple Mount for ideological reasons has first consulted with rabbis, whether directly or indirectly. The working assumption is that if a similar plan is hatched, the individuals will again approach rabbis and possibly also some of the leaders of the Yesha Council [the main settler organization].”
Despite such concerns, on Tuesday, Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz decided against opening an investigation into the rabbis who placed a highly publicized curse on Israeli Prime Minister Sharon last month.
Given the degree to which attacks against Arabs were anticipated, some observers have accused Israeli authorities of being too lenient with potential Jewish terrorists. Shin Bet and Israeli military officials “refrained in most cases from executing the administrative detention of Jews, thus giving the message that the war against Jewish terror was not being waged at full force,” wrote Amir Rapaport, Ma’ariv’s military and security analyst.
Critics have noted that it took almost two years for the Shin Bet to put an end to a spate of roadside shootings against Arab vehicles in the West Bank that began in 2000 and left nine Palestinians dead. Eventually the incidents stopped, but no one was arrested.
One Shin Bet official defended his agency, saying, “Our job is to prevent, and this kind of work takes time and many efforts.”
The Shin Bet official also said that his agency was proud of several recent arrests made possible only because of strong intelligence gathered by its agents. He cited the case of the May 15 detention of Ilan Hirschfeld, who planned to fly over the Temple Mount with a motorized glider and cause panic and riots among Arab worshippers. Hirschfield was released with no indictments. “We have said many times before that in cases of the Temple Mount and threats on the life of the prime minister, we are not willing to rule out even jokes,” the Shin Bet official said. “In this case we traced the intentions, gathered the intelligence and gave it to the police. We are not in charge of indictments.”
In June the police arrested two people who had secretly manufactured Ninja-style metal spikes meant to be spread on the main highways as a part of the demonstrations against the government. “This was not another case of kids running wild,” the Shin Bet official said. “They managed to manufacture at least 1,500 pieces which could cause the certain death of road users. This is considered a terror attempt.”
Authorities also arrested three people in May who were driving old cars in central Tel Aviv that were loaded with thousands of gallons of fuel, waiting for instructions where to torch them.
In the months leading up to the Gaza pullout, six people were placed under administrative arrest after the Shin Bet convinced the attorney general and the court that suspects intended to cause mayhem by killing Jews or Arabs in terror attacks or getting others to commit such acts. The fact that none of the suspects was ever indicted drew criticism from settler leaders and civil rights activists. One of the detainees, an American citizen and a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, was released after signing an agreement saying that he never would come back to Israel. Another of the detained suspects was ordered by the court to present a one-way ticket to any destination he would like, as a condition for his release.
“It is too early to sum up the functioning of the security service before and during disengagement,” the Shin Bet official said, noting that only a handful of incidents occurred, despite the high levels of threats. “We will keep an eye and more than that on every one of our targets — hoping and working hard to get all the intelligence we can on those who act on their on behalf.”