Israeli President Chaim Herzog on Friday reduced to 15 years the sentences of three members of the so-called Jewish Underground terrorist group who had been sentenced to life in prison for a 1983 assault at Hebron University in which three Arab students were killed and 33 were wounded.
Herzog's office issued no official announcement of the action, which is expected to revive charges that Israel has different standards of justice for Arabs and Jews. But his spokesman, Ami Gluska, confirmed Friday night that the president signed the order earlier in the day in connection with the 40th anniversary of Israel's statehood.
In March, 1987, Herzog had announced he would commute the three sentences to about 25 years.
The move Friday came at a time when there are about 10,000 Palestinian Arabs in prison, about 5,000 of them in connection with the continuing wave of anti-Israeli unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Nearly 2,000 of them are being held under administrative detention orders, without official charges or trials.
Herzog's action Friday fell far short of the full pardons that reportedly were recommended by Justice Minister Avraham Sharir, a member of the rightist Likud party. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Likud leader, had privately expressed support for amnesty.
Their recommendations had already caused controversy. Spokesman Gluska clearly had potential charges of dual standards of justice in mind when he noted Friday that there were 40th-anniversary sentence reductions for 23 other prisoners serving life terms.
Of the total of 26 life sentences that have been reduced, he said, half involved Arabs, five of them Israeli citizens of the Muslim Druze sect and the others Palestinians from East Jerusalem or the West Bank.
According to an Israeli Government Press Office bulletin issued last month, a directive approved by Herzog and Sharir states that "a life sentence will generally not be reduced if the offender has been convicted of what is defined as 'a hostile terrorist murder.' "
The Jewish Underground case was handled from the beginning as extraordinary. Menachem Livni, 41, Shaul Nir, 34, and Uzi Sharabaf, 28, were sentenced in July, 1985, after a 13-month trial described at the time as one of the most politically explosive in the history of the state.
They were among 28 activists in the West Bank Jewish settlement movement arrested in April, 1984, and charged with carrying out a four-year campaign to terrorize and intimidate Arabs in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories.
The arrests shocked the country. The underground members were considered to be among the cream of Israeli society, highly educated family men, mostly religious. Several, including Livni, have distinguished military records.
Sharabaf is the son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, considered the spiritual leader of the Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc) settlement movement and one of its most charismatic figures.
In addition to the Hebron University assault, the group was found guilty of car bomb attacks that maimed two West Bank Palestinian mayors in 1980, a thwarted attempt to plant bombs on Arab buses in East Jerusalem in 1984 and a plot to blow up Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites.
One More Still in Prison
Only one other member of the underground is believed to be still in prison, and he is scheduled to be released with time off for good behavior within a few months.
Livni, Nir and Sharabaf were the only members of the group convicted of murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence in Israel. Allowing for time already served and the additional time off that is given almost automatically here for good behavior, Herzog's action on Friday means that the three can expect to be free in less than six more years.
Considering prisoner exchanges, such as one in 1985 that freed 1,150 people, the average Arab convicted of terrorist acts has served about 10 years in prison in Israel, Gluska said. The Jewish Underground members argued at their trial that they had acted to defend themselves and their families after the army failed to provide adequate protection for West Bank settlers threatened by Arab terrorism.
The case caused a rift in the settlement movement, although even those who condemned their actions argued that there were extenuating circumstances.
Even the judge who sentenced them commented: "This is a special group which cannot be compared to any other terror group."
Gluska said Friday it is possible, in theory, that the sentences of Livni, Nir and Sharabaf could be further reduced in the future.