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Netanyahu trial'I feared I would not come out of it alive'

Netanyahu trial witness says interrogators threatened to destroy his family

During cross-examination, Nir Hefetz describes the ‘vile’ conditions of his detention that caused him to break after 11 days and turn state witness against his former boss

Nir Hefetz seen as he arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on December 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Nir Hefetz seen as he arrives for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on December 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A key witness for the prosecution in former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial testified Wednesday that police interrogators threatened to destroy his relationships with his family members if he did not turn on his ex-boss.

“The threat was clear. If I did not give a version [they were looking for], they would destroy my family. This was said dozens of times,” former Netanyahu family spokesman and confidant Nir Hefetz said during his cross-examination, as the former premier’s defense team continued in their efforts to undermine the witness’s testimony, arguing that statements made under duress should not be held up under the law.

Hefetz also said Wednesday that his access to food and medical care was extremely limited while he was in police custody and that at one point he had even feared for his life.

Nonetheless, Hefetz said Monday that despite the heavy pressure, his testimony is “unequivocally the truth.”

Judges on Tuesday rejected Hefetz’s request to hold in private parts of the cross-examination discussing a police maneuver during his interrogation that played a part in him agreeing to become a state witness.

Most details of the maneuver are under a gag order to protect Hefetz’s privacy, although the media has reported that it involved Hefetz’s wife being called to the police station, as well as another woman.

Hefetz has provided prosecutors with key information as an interlocutor between Netanyahu and Bezeq’s controlling shareholder, Shaul Elovitch, as the prime minister sought to positively influence coverage of his affairs through the Elovitch-owned Walla news site. Hefetz was often the one communicating the premier’s wishes to Walla management and has testified on the nature of this relationship.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Nir Hefetz (L) arrive at the weekly cabinet meeting held in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 27, 2009. (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Netanyahu is accused of bribery in the case, allegedly having provided regulatory benefits to Bezeq in return for positive coverage on Walla. He denies the allegations.

During his Wednesday cross-examination, Hefetz discussed the conditions of his police interrogation, saying he was given only slices of bread and sandwiches. “For a whole week, I did not see a plate or silverware. I ate on my knees and at the interrogation table,” he testified.

Hefetz discussed the previously reported, flea-infested jail cell he was placed in at the beginning of his interrogation. He requested a new cell after being severely bitten but was transferred to a cell in another jail that was full of trash.

The former Netanyahu aide said the detention conditions were part of a clear attempt by interrogators to break him. When he asked for medical treatment for his flea bites, the request was rejected on several occasions. Then, when they finally brought him to the prison clinic, the doctor had left for the day. When he eventually was able to receive medical care, the doctor scolded the prison guards for not treating him earlier, Hefetz testified.

“I really suggest you reconsider your future,” Hefetz recalled being told during interrogation. “The explosion you are about to endure in the coming hours, in the next two days — it will shock your world. We are Lahav 433 and our investigative capabilities are similar to those of the Shin Bet security service.”

Hefetz then recalled being transferred to the Shikma prison, where he was placed in a dirty cell “like a monkey,” surrounded by other cells with inmates inside them whom he assumed were from Gaza.

“I didn’t understand what I was doing there,” he said. “At one point, someone recognized me and everyone started shouting ‘Netanyahu! Netanyahu!’ and began banging their cells.”

Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch and his wife Iris arrive for a court hearing at the District Court in Jerusalem on December 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I was separated from them in my own cell with no direct contact with them, but as a result of these interactions, there was a feeling that I was in danger and that I would not come out of this alive,” Hefetz added, later recalling a massive fight that broke out in the middle of the night in which he said one prisoner bashed another inmate’s head into a door, causing the whole building to shake.

Hefetz testified that he broke when interrogators began “playing with his family.”

He said interrogators at one point called his wife in front of him and told her that he had been released. “I told [the interrogator]: ‘Why are you playing with my family’s emotions?’ It was a vile move.”

“They kept saying that my children would never talk to me. The moment I broke was only against this backdrop,” Hefetz said.

Hefetz’s testimony mostly related to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have worked to illicitly and lucratively benefit the business interests of Elovitch in exchange for positive coverage on Walla. Some of it has related to Case 2000, in which Netanyahu is accused of attempting to reach a quid pro quo with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes for positive media coverage in exchange for legislation weakening rival newspaper Israel Hayom.

Hefetz left a long career in journalism in 2009 to work as a spokesman for Netanyahu’s government, and in 2014 became the Netanyahu family’s spokesman and adviser.

In 2018, after he was arrested as a possible accomplice in connection with one of Netanyahu’s corruption cases, Hefetz signed a state witness deal and provided investigators with recordings of conversations with Netanyahu and his family.

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