Police arrest head of anti-assimilation group Lehava
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Police arrest head of anti-assimilation group Lehava

Bentzi Gopshtain and nine others held on suspicion of incitement to violence and terror, day after members charged in bilingual school arson

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Bentzi Gopstein, head of Lehava, in Jerusalem's Old City, October 30, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Bentzi Gopstein, head of Lehava, in Jerusalem's Old City, October 30, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police arrested the head of extreme Jewish anti-assimilation group Lehava early Tuesday morning, amid suspicions that he and others in the organization incited to violence and acts of terror.

The arrest of Bentzi Gopshtain and nine others in the group came several weeks after Lehava members allegedly torched a bilingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem and left racist graffiti at the site, in an attack that shocked many Israelis.

Police said in a statement that the arrests came after a complex and extensive undercover investigation into the activities of Lehava, which works to prevent intermarriage and coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

The group is known for holding protests and marches that sometimes turn violent, including outside mixed Jewish Arab weddings.

In August, four people were arrested when the group held a large protest outside the Rishon Lezion wedding of an Arab man and a Jewish woman.

The arrest raids were carried out by police in Gopshtain’s hometown of Kiryat Arba in the West Bank, as well as by units in Jerusalem, Netivot, and Petah Tikva.

In addition to the arrests, cops also carried out extensive searches of the suspects’ homes.

The activists were to be brought before the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court later Tuesday to be remanded in custody on suspicion of incitement to commit violent acts and terror for racial motivation.

Gopshtain’s lawyer Itamar Ben Gvir declared that the arrest was political.

“Politicians from the left applied pressure and the police acted against the Lehava organization, even though it is clear to them that this is a legal organization that operates openly against assimilation,” he said. “It is a disgrace.”

On Monday, three Lehava members were formally charged in the arson and vandalism attack last month on Jerusalem’s Max Rayne Hand in Hand School school, after having confessed to committing the crime during questioning.

Security officials said that the suspects, Yitzhak Gabai, 22, and brothers Shlomo and Nahman Twitto, aged 20 and 18 respectively, admitted to torching the Jewish-Arab school because of anti-assimilation ideology.

Three members of the anti-assimilation  Lehava organization, suspects in an arson attack on a Jewish-Arab school, are brought to a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on December 15, 2014.  (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Three members of the anti-assimilation Lehava organization, suspects in an arson attack on a Jewish-Arab school, are brought to a hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on December 15, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On November 29, two first-grade classrooms and a playground were set on fire during a nighttime attack on the school. The suspects spray-painted messages that read “There is no coexistence with cancer”; “Death to the Arabs”; and “Kahane was right,” a reference to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, a mentor of the Jewish ultranationalist movement.

The attack drew condemnation from politicians across the spectrum, and hundreds rallied in support of the school in the days following the attack.

According to a report from Channel 2, one of the suspects claimed on Monday that the Shin Bet security services had offered to cut him a deal of a cash payment and a reduced sentence if he testified that the Lehava group was also involved in the arson attack.

The suspect reportedly turned down the offer.

The Shin Bet denied the claim.

Although the three suspects were charged with arson, breaking and entering a building that was not their place of residence, and vandalism, they were not charged with crimes of a nationalistic or racist nature.

In Israel, nationalistic crimes can include terrorism charges.

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