Israeli Cabinet Splits Over Prosecuting Security Chief
The Israeli Cabinet, in heated debate, split Sunday over a demand by the attorney general to prosecute the head of Israel’s top-secret internal security organization for allegedly trying to impede an investigation into the beating death of two Palestinian terrorists at the hands of their Israeli interrogators two years ago.
Citing national security considerations, officials refused to discuss details of the case, which became public on Sunday after Israeli news media reported that the Cabinet held a “heated debate . . . over the involvement of a top government official in an incident first investigated two years ago.”
The identity of the official was not announced, but senior government sources said he was the head of the Shin Bet, the intelligence organization that oversees security in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is roughly equivalent to the FBI.
The identity of the head of the Shin Bet is a state secret, and Israeli censorship laws, which are strict on matters of national security, forbid publication of his name.
But senior government sources said the internal security chief has been the target of a lengthy investigation by Atty. Gen. Yitzhak Zamir into a high-level cover-up of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of two Arab terrorists captured after they hijacked a bus on April 12, 1984.
The high-level sources said that Zamir’s office has recommended that the Shin Bet chief be prosecuted for obstruction of justice stemming from his alleged role in suppressing or destroying evidence relating to the highly sensitive, politically explosive affair.
The case began when four Arab residents of the occupied Gaza Strip hijacked a passenger bus traveling from Tel Aviv to the southern coastal town of Ashkelon and threatened to blow it up. In a pre-dawn raid, Israeli security forces stormed the bus near the Egyptian border, and two of the hijackers and one passenger, a Israeli woman soldier, were killed.
The Israeli military at first announced that all four terrorists were killed in the commando assault, but later an Israeli newspaper, defying censorship laws, published a photograph of two of the terrorists being led away from the bus handcuffed and apparently unhurt.
A military commission appointed to investigate the deaths of the two surviving Arabs reported a month later that they had been pistol-whipped to death by their Israeli military interrogators. At least nine senior security officers, including several Shin Bet members and Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai, who was then the chief of the army’s paratroop and infantry divisions, were accused in the killings.
However, none of the officers was ever prosecuted, and an army court of inquiry last year dropped the charges against Mordechai, ruling that he had acted under “extreme pressure” and that it was not possible to determine whether the two terrorists’ fatal injuries were sustained when the bus was stormed or were inflicted later.
Although Zamir’s office concluded at the time that there was “prima facie evidence” that Mordechai and the other officers caused grievous bodily harm, the charges contained in the attorney general’s latest investigation center on allegations that the Shin Bet chief tried to supress earlier inquiries into the affair, government sources said.
The sources refused to elaborate, citing the “highly sensitive” nature of the scandal, which has deeply divided the coalition government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
However, the issue seeped into the open on Sunday, when government sources leaked word to local newspapers that several Cabinet ministers were demanding that Zamir be replaced because of his “insistence” on investigating the Shin Bet chief.
Zamir, who has served as attorney general for five years, served notice of his intention to resign several months ago but has stayed on pending the appointment of a successor.
The official sources said that Peres discussed the issue both with his 10-member “inner Cabinet” Sunday morning and with his full 25-member Cabinet later in the day, but that the government remained divided over whether to speed up the search for Zamir’s successor. Characterizing the Cabinet debate as “extremely heated,” the sources said the ministers were also divided over whether to try to suppress the attorney general’s investigation on grounds of national security.
Because of the highly classified nature of the investigation, most of the details of the Cabinet discussions were not revealed. But the debate has already spun off a secondary scandal over attempts to use national security considerations as a means of protecting high-level officials from embarrassing disclosures and shielding the Shin Bet from the rule of law.
‘Above the Law’
“We have some ministers who think they are above the law,” added Shulamit Aloni, a member of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, and of the small, liberal Citizens Rights Movement. “But fortunately they are not the mainstream in this country, and I am sure the investigation will continue,” she said. “As long as Israel is under the rule of law, it cannot be stopped.”
Interviewed by Israel television, however, Peres appeared to indicate that he favors suppressing details of the investigation for security reasons.
“There are security considerations and legal considerations, and when they clash, security takes precedence,” Peres was quoted as saying.
Government sources said that the results of the attorney general’s inquiry into the alleged cover-up have already been turned over to police investigators and that the case against the Shin Bet chief is likely to proceed.
However, they expressed concern about “certain irregularities” that could affect the outcome of the case. They said, for example, that an attorney for the Shin Bet chief was present during the Cabinet meeting.
Barred by censorship regulations from even mentioning the Shin Bet’s reported involvement in the scandal, Israeli news media had to resort to euphemisms and innuendos in reporting the story, referring to the Shin Bet chief only as a “senior appointed official.”
“When an institution as sensitive and powerful as the one headed by the official is so flawed, it must be a warning to the entire Israeli public,” Israel TV said.