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Shin Bet impotent in face of settler "Price Tag" attacks

What Israel needs, in the battle against Jewish terrorism, is a Lester Freemon; What the ISA can supply is a weak-kneed Jack Bauer

Israel was shocked last week, as violent settlers attacked the IDF directly, ransacking an army base, stoning a colonel and his deputy, and throwing Molotov cocktails at soldiers. The shock was reinforced by the IDF’s response: It did nothing. The soldiers cowered and did not even arrest their assailants. Later on, the Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, said that the army did not have any intelligence on the attackers: It does not gather information on Jews, he said.

Barak was, for once, correct. The duty to collect intelligence and investigate Jewish terrorism rests with the Israel Security Agency (familiar to non-Israelis as the Shin Bet). The ISA enjoys a fearsome reputation and is widely considered to be the best of Israel’s intelligence agencies. It foiled dozens, of not hundreds, of terrorist attacks in the last decades, and is essential to the controversial “targeted assassination” program, where it is relied upon to provide pinpoint-accurate intelligence.

The last year has seen a significant rise in so-called “price tag” attacks: Attacks by settlers or their supporters on Palestinians, both in the West Bank and Israel proper, in retaliation for actions considered hostile to the settlers by the IDF. The logic is that of hostage-taking: Harm our interests, and we’ll harm Palestinians, and thereby put the relative quiet at risk. Attacks by settlers on soldiers are not new: They have been documented for decades. They have never been so high-profile, however.

Another mosque, in Bani Naim, was descreated this week, with no arrests (Photo: B'Tselem)

Another mosque, in Bani Naim, was descreated this week, with no arrests (Photo: B'Tselem)

And yet, after more than a year of “price tag” attacks, not a single attacker has been indicted, let alone convicted. This despite the fact that the ISA has a special division dealing with Jewish terrorism (dubbed “the Jewish Division”), and despite the fact that its leaders have openly said Jewish terrorism is much more dangerous, strategically, than Palestinian terrorism.

Furthermore, this failure isn’t the first: The Jewish Division is the ISA’s problem child. Its most notorious case came last year, when it attempted to indict Haim Perlman, a Jewish extremist, for a series of stabbings of Palestinians which took place a decade ago. Perlman, who was for a while an ISA informant, managed to record (and later leak the recording) his case officer soliciting him to murder the chief of the Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah. After a month in detention, most of it without access to an attorney, and after leaking outlandish nonsense about Perlman allegedly assisting Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir and Hebron mass murderer Baruch Goldstein (he was 15 and 14 years old at the time, respectively), the ISA had to let him go. They had nothing on him.

Why the string of failures? For two reasons. One, the ISA has much more latitude when it comes to Palestinian suspects. It can detain them longer, prevent them from seeing a lawyer, and, yes, torture them. While torture is illegal, no ISA officer has been held accountable for torture, since the ISA conducts its own internal investigations – this despite the fact the organization has been caught lying several times. The ISA openly admitted this week that they have failed in the struggle against Jewish terrorists, and supplied the reason why: “They keep silent during interrogations.” In the fight against settler terrorism, we need a Lester Freemon; The ISA, however, can only supply us with a Jack Bauer.

Second, the ISA simply doesn’t have the same leverage over Jews. When it comes to Palestinians, and to a lesser effect Israeli Palestinians, the ISA is the authority which has the final say over the many, many documents and permits they require to merely live. This gives it almost unchecked power over the lives of Palestinians – and this makes recruiting agents almost laughably easy.

When this net of control is removed, the ISA is almost powerless. Case in point: Gilad Schalit. Before Israel retreated from Gaza in 2005, the ISA’s intelligence was gold. Once its yoke was removed, and Gazans did not permit to drive their donkey-carts (true story), the gold turned to dust: The ISA was unable, for more than five years, to locate an Israeli soldier captured and held less than 10 miles from the Israeli border. They had no leverage with most Gazans. They kidnapped some; apparently, not the right people.

Israeli settlers in the West Bank carry with them, in their enclaves, all the rights of Israeli citizens; They are much more aware of them than the average Israeli; And they have a politically-astute public behind them. The ISA, used to arm-twisting tactics, has yet to find a way to tackle a much more subtle opponent than an underarmed Palestinian teenager. Nor is it likely to learn soon.

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    1. Ben Israel

      I find the argument that the SHABAK is powerless in these cases hard to accept. Don’t forget that they cracked the “Jewish Underground” case in the 1980’s. Those people had strong political connections with the Likud and National Religious Parties, unlike today’s supposed extremists who despise the political echelons (assuming, of course, that they are the ones doing the “price tag” attacks) and yet the whole network was arrested and convicted. In the years that have passed the Leftist political echelons that have come to power in the security establishment have far less ideological connection with the settlers who did have sympathy in the old MAPAI and MAPAM parties, thus I would think they would have a lot more enthusiasm in going after these people, and not viewing them as “people who mean well but who just went too far” as was common back then.
      Regarding “torture” and “pressure” this has been used on Jewish security prisoners for years…things like locking prisoners in filthy, roach-infested cells with violent cell mates, preventing any contact with lawyers of family for long stretches of time, and the NKVD’s old favorite….sleep deprivation. After 4 or 5 days without sleep, almost anyone would be willing to confess anything. Since, unlike the NKVD, the SHABAK doesn’t want false confessions, but useful information, the fact that they are NOT getting this useful information makes we wonder about who is really doing these things.

      Reply to Comment
    2. This article bemoans the obvious result of apartheid — two laws for two peoples in one geographic unit (“GU”). I have no recommendation as to the GU known as behind-green-line Israel (or pre-1967 Israel) — the two laws for two peoples will continue there as long as Israel remains a racist state based on religious identification. But in the occupied territories, the answer is easy to describe and required by international law — removal of all settlers in the GUs that Israel belligerently occupied in June 1967.

      “Next year will international law be enforced” should be the prayer for this case.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mikesailor

      It is always interesting how articles such as this are always prefaced with a statement ..” it foiled dozens, if not hundreds, of terrorist attacks in the last deacades..”. Really? And who provided that statistic? The ISA itself. Aided by the methods you have documented so well.
      The myth of infallibility of ‘security’ and ‘intelligence’ services is all too well known. Few if any question the ‘need’ for these services lest they be labeled “traitors’ at most, or ‘unpatriotic’ at least. Oh how the masses have been brainwashed to believe the tripe that comes out of these vaunted agencies, and never recognize they have their own institutional biases and incompetents. They have their own agendas: larger and larger budgets and less transparency and accountability. Why can’t the ISA make a case against the right-wing settlers, or even bombers or mosque burners? Number one, they have to go to Israeli civilian courts, rather than the military courts which ‘convict’ over 99% of the Palestinians who are relegated to those kangaroo (No disrespect to those fine marsupials) courts. And Number 2, they really don’t want to be bothered investigating those with ties to the Knesset which controls their funding. The same with Mossad, MI5 and MI6, the CIA and FBI, the list of these clowns and their acronyms is endless. Leave us alone. believe whatever we tell you, but above all keep the money flowing.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Piotr Berman

      Ben Israel seems to mix fact with fictions, which is very topical.

      Intelligence services have several functions, they are basically thugs working for the State outside the law, as the State finds that at occasion it cannot stay within limits set for Common People or even the ruling classes. One of the functions is manipulating the information. It is good to be perceived as all powerful opponent of the Enemies of the People, to whom alien terrorist belong without much dispute (among the Common People, some wags remain sceptic).

      On the other hand, it may be of advantage to be perceived as powerless in respect to not particularly unpopular trouble makers like the more extreme settlers. I do not think that penetrating that particular “underground” is difficult. You need to train an agent who would volunteer to join such guys. And you do not need some very exotic training, false live histories etc. A wee difficulty is that the agent can get converted to the cause that he/she potentially subverts.

      But this still requires some budget, and this part of the budget does not have large priority. And since we cannot simply offer dire threats and cheap rewards, Jewish undercover agents must get a living salary. So if they are not difficult to plant they are not cheap.

      However, one may ask: what is the main purpose? Preventing law grade sh.t that does not unduly harm the State nor Citizens? Or preventing something major, like assassination attempts? A perception of impotence may make it easier to penetrate the more dangerous ranks by decreasing their level of paranoia.

      Reply to Comment
    5. “Israeli settlers in the West Bank carry with them, in their enclaves, all the rights of Israeli citizens; They are much more aware of them than the average Israeli”
      This is the legal weak link in the State settlement logic. Equal protection will apply to left Israelis protesting in the same area, forcing Court review upon (alas, adequate) maltreatment.

      Reply to Comment