Israeli Debate on Amnesty Moving to the Streets

Times Staff Writer

Israel’s painful debate over the fate of 27 Jews accused of anti-Arab terrorism is moving from a political forum to the streets with some experts saying the rule of law in the country is under serious threat.

In recent days, there have been dozens of demonstrations calling for the end of trials for the accused terrorists or a government commitment to pardon the 27 if they are convicted. The demonstrations were a response to the release nearly two weeks ago of more than 1,000 Arabs imprisoned for terrorist acts, including murder, in a trade for three Israeli soldiers held by a radical Palestinian liberation group.

Starting this weekend, opponents of clemency for the accused Jewish terrorists are planning a series of marches and demonstrations around the country to demand that the trials continue and that anyone convicted serve his sentence in full.

Under the sponsorship of the Peace Now movement, which was a loud and persistent critic of the June, 1982, invasion of Lebanon, the demonstrators hope to get thousands into the streets tonight to offset the increasing pressure for a pardon, which is coming mostly from Jewish settlers of the occupied Arab West Bank.


Police Fear Clashes

Police officials are concerned that the Peace Now demonstrations will bring out opponents to confront them in the streets. They noted that one of the 27 defendants is charged with throwing a grenade into a Peace Now demonstration in Tel Aviv that killed one person and wounded several.

“The mood people are in could make this a violent weekend,” said one police officer in Jerusalem.

He added that he hopes the Peace Now protest will be small and acknowledged that government officials had put up bureaucratic obstacles to the marches before allowing them to go on.


The focus of the dispute, which has deepened the differences between the two parties that control the national unity government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres, is the so-called Jewish Underground, a hard-line group of ultraorthodox religious zealots who favor the use of violence to drive Arabs out of Israel. The 27, ten of whom have already been convicted or pleaded guilty, are charged with a variety of crimes, including murder, bus bombings, shooting at civilians, and attempting to blow up the Al Aqsa Mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Although defenders of the accused men have been urging an end to the trial since they were first charged a year ago, the issue did not become acute until the government exchanged the Arab terrorists for the three Israelis.

Jewish Arrests Decried

At that point, Peres’ two main opponents in the coalition government--Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Trade and Industry Minister Ariel Sharon--said it was unjust to free Arab terrorists while Jews convicted of similar crimes remain in jail. Peres and Shamir head Israel’s two major political groupings, Peres the Labor alignment and Shamir the Likud bloc.


Sharon, another leading Likud figure, said, “It is unimaginable that after the release of the most terrible murderers that we should keep the Jewish Underground prisoners under lock and key.”

Shamir, who is scheduled to become prime minister next year under a power-sharing agreement between Likud and Labor, added, “It would serve the national interest to bring the trial to a speedy conclusion.”

This position seems to have strong public support. A recent poll conducted by the independent newspaper Yediot Aharonot indicated that 73% of the public wants the trial ended and for those convicted to receive immediate pardons. Shamir and a close ally, Interior Minister Yitzhak Peretz, have played to the politically important religious minority in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) and the public by saying that the accused are “good boys” who were motivated by a desire to protect the Jewishness of the country.

The Likud leader also said in an interview that the only limit he would place on release of the 27 is that “they publicly express their remorse at what they have done or intended to do.”


West Bank Intimidation

All of this has played against a background of nearly nightly forays by extremists among the Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank into Arab towns to harass and intimidate the Arab terrorists who were released and permitted to return to their homes.

The cries for an end to the Jewish Underground trials or the pardoning of the indicted men plus the inability or unwillingness of the Israeli army and police to stop or punish the raiding settlers have brought expressions of serious concern by civil rights groups and other supporters of a secular, Western system of the rule of law.

Shlomo Avineri, a highly regarded political scientist at the Hebrew University here, says the outcome of the prisoner release controversy could determine “Israel’s continued existence as a state of law and order--or its deterioration into a state of quasi-civil war, in which armed militias forcefully coerce a silent, stunned and helpless majority into accepting their opinions and positions.”


Knesset member Shulamit Aloni, chairman of the Citizens Rights Movement, said: “What we are seeing now is the dangerous emergence of a political division over the very fundamentals of law. It appears that justice, law and order are not just a matter of law, but of political philosophy.”