Rabbis approved Shabbat violation to counter threat of Shin Bet interrogations

Settlement spiritual leaders deemed investigation into Palestinian woman’s killing a matter of life and death, in light of past suicide attempt by Jewish terror suspect

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The entrance to the settlement of Yitzhar in the West Bank. (Flash90/File)
The entrance to the settlement of Yitzhar in the West Bank. (Flash90/File)

Concluding that a Shin Bet investigation into the killing of a Palestinian woman posed life-threatening danger, two noted settler rabbis authorized a group of far-right activists to drive on Shabbat and coach students at a northern West Bank yeshiva on how best to withstand interrogation by the security service.

The Times of Israel spoke on Sunday with a prominent member of the Yitzhar settlement, who said he was involved in the decision to permit the violation of religious laws against driving on the Jewish Sabbath. The decision came after word got out regarding the death of Aisha Rabi, a 47-year-old mother of eight who was struck in the head with a large stone, as she sat in the passenger seat of a car being driven by her husband near the Tapuah Junction.

An investigation conducted jointly by the Shin Bet and the Israel Police’s nationalistic crime unit led to the arrest of five students at the Pri Haaretz yeshiva high school, in the northern West Bank settlement of Rehelim — three last Sunday and two others roughly a week later.

Although the incident took place on a Friday night (October 12), when members of the Orthodox settlement of Yitzhar do not use electrical appliances, word reached the community’s security coordinator, who leaves his phone on during Shabbat in case of emergency.

A car belonging to a Palestinian couple is seen after it was involved in a deadly crash reportedly due to stone-throwing by Israeli settlers at the Tapuah Junction in the northern West Bank on October 12, 2018. (Zachariah Sadeh/Rabbis for Human Rights)

The Yitzhar resident who spoke with The Times of Israel said the security coordinator was updated on Rabi’s death from his counterpart in Rehelim, which is closer to where the attack took place.

The Yitzhar security coordinator was told that that there were large numbers of police and Shin Bet agents operating in Rehelim, specifically near the Pri Haaretz yeshiva where students had been spending the weekend.

The security coordinator passed on that information to locals at the settlement’s synagogue on Saturday morning, the prominent resident said.

A group of community leaders then gathered to discuss rushing over to Pri Haaretz in Rehelim in order to warn the students of what they believed would ensue.

Aisha Rabi (Courtesy)

“The last time the Shin Bet probed Jewish minors suspected of murdering Arabs, they brutally tortured them and caused one of the boys to try and take his own life,” said the Yitzhar resident, referring to the security agency’s interrogations of suspects in a 2015 terror attack in the Palestinian village of Duma that killed three members of the Dawabsha family.

The Yitzhar resident said that — in light of that suicide attempt — the community leaders who had gathered to discuss the report of Rabi’s murder concluded that warning students at Pri Haaretz of the interrogation methods they might face was “a matter of life and death” (pikuah nefesh) that justified the violation of Shabbat.

Among those involved in the October discussions in Yitzhar was Meir Ettinger, a far-right activist and the grandson of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, a defense official said.

This week, Ettinger was present at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate’s Court on Sunday during hearings in which a judge remanded all the suspects in the Rabi murder until Thursday.

The official added that the group included other figures who had undergone extensive interrogations at the hands of the Shin Bet.

The Yitzhar resident said that when the group of community leaders reached the conclusion that they had to warn the Pri Haaretz students of what they soon might endure, they reached out to a prominent rabbi in the settlement to receive permission to violate the Sabbath in order to drive the roughly 10 miles to Rehelim.

“At first, the rabbi refused to grant such permission,” the Yitzhar resident said, declining to identify the rabbi by name.

Alleged head of a Jewish extremist group, Meir Ettinger appears in the Magistrate’s Court in Nazareth Illit, August 4, 2015. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Instead, he allowed them to turn on a computer and check the news to see if settlers were being blamed for the attack.

The community leaders checked the Ynet news site, which had an article citing anonymous officials to the effect that Israelis were suspected of having thrown the stone that killed Rabi.

“They reported this back to the rabbi, who then gave them permission to drive over to Rehelim,” the Yitzhar resident recalled.

He added that the group went to a second rabbi in the settlement and received his blessing as well before heading over to Rehelim.

Upon arrival, the far-right activists spoke to a number of students, offering them tips on how to endure interrogations, reviewing their rights upon detainment, and urging them to remain silent as much as possible.

The Shin Bet highlighted the trip from Yitzhar to Rehelim in a Sunday statement on the investigation into Rabi’s death.

Saad and Riham Dawabsha, with baby Ali. All three died when the Dawabsha home in the West Bank village of Duma was firebombed, by suspected Jewish extremists, on July 31, 2015. (Channel 2 screenshot)

The boys are suspected of “terror offenses, including murder,” the agency said, after months in which a gag order had prevented publication of information on the case.

The suspects’ attorneys — Itamar Ben Gvir, and the Honenu legal aid organization’s Adi Keidar and Hay Haber — held a press conference outside court on Sunday, in which they claimed that their clients underwent “torture,” while in Israeli custody.

“From morning to night (my client) was shackled to a chair, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, in a small cell,” said Keidar. “The boy I met was tired, broken, and exhausted.”

The attorneys claimed that their clients have an alibi placing them away from the murder site.

For its part, the Shin Bet said in its statement that since the first round of arrests last Sunday, the agency “identified an ongoing effort by interested individuals to slander the organization and its employees and delegitimize its activities.”

“Claims regarding the denial of the rights of those interrogated… are baseless and their purpose is to divert the discussion from the serious suspicions in which they were detained for interrogation,” the Shin Bet said.

Over the past few weeks, settler leaders and right-wing activists have demonstrated against the Shin Bet’s investigation tactics, which have included barring suspects from meeting with attorneys.

Right-wing activists attend a protest in Tel Aviv, staging alleged torture by the Shin Bet against Jewish terror suspects (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israeli law allows authorities to delay an attorney visit for a terrorism suspect by up to 21 days, subject to court appeal.

On Saturday evening, leading national Zionist rabbi and former politician Haim Druckman released a video in which he appealed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “order the immediate release of the youngsters,” saying “they’re not terrorists” and “should not be investigated in the cellars of the Shin Bet.” Shin Bet officials were quoted on Channel 10 on Sunday saying Druckman had not contacted the agency prior to making his appeal to ascertain the specifics of the case.

Also Saturday evening, authorities allowed the three teens arrested last Sunday to meet with their attorneys for the first time, nearly a week after they were detained. The two suspects nabbed in the second round of arrests will be prevented from meeting with their lawyers until at least Tuesday.

Commenting on the convoy of far-right activists that violated the Sabbath in order to coach the suspects on how to bear Shin Bet interrogation, Ben Gvir refused to pass judgment on the group, saying the incident only showed how far the Shin Bet had driven religious Jews with its “excessive” interrogations.

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