In an unusual step, the Shin Bet security service said on Thursday that an Israeli Jewish teen indicted for manslaughter earlier in the day for the October killing of a Palestinian mother of eight had committed a “terror attack in every sense.”
The agency lashed out at extremists who it said were working hard to “obstruct the investigation,” and rejected right-wing criticism of its interrogation methods.
It said it had done nothing illegal while questioning the suspects, and had, in fact, handled the investigation of suspected Jewish terrorists in exactly the same way it handles probes of suspected Arab terrorists.
The killing was the most serious incident of suspected Jewish terror since the 2015 firebombing of a Palestinian home in Duma in the northern West Bank.
The 16-year-old Israeli, a student at the Pri Haaretz yeshiva in the northern West Bank settlement of Rehelim, was charged with manslaughter, aggravated stone throwing at a moving vehicle, and intentional sabotage of a vehicle. Each of the charges is connected to the killing of Aisha Rabi, a 47-year-old Palestinian mother of eight, and was qualified as having been carried out “in the context of a terrorist act.”
If convicted, the suspect could face considerable jail time; a manslaughter terrorism conviction alone carries a maximum sentence of 20 years behind bars.
Due to apparent limits imposed on prosecutors by the available evidence, the suspect avoided murder charges, which would have put him at risk of a life sentence.
Following the indictment announcement, the Shin Bet issued a public response to a campaign of excoriation from far-right activists claiming it had tortured the suspect and denied him basic rights during the investigation.
In its statement, the agency denied the accusations, insisting “all elements of the investigation were conducted under close legal supervision of the state prosecution and the courts, and during the investigation the suspects enjoyed the conditions granted to them under law in accordance with their age and religious faith.”
The last was a reference to claims that the suspects were denied opportunities to pray and carry out other religious obligations during extended periods of questioning.
The agency also accused the far-right activists of “a persistent effort…to obstruct the investigation. This included, on the morning after the terror attack, a Sabbath, a group of extremist activists who drove from Yitzhar to the yeshiva in Rehelim in order to brief the youths studying in the yeshiva how to prepare for and handle a Shin Bet interrogation.”
The far-right activists also “launched an intensive and persistent effort to slander the Shin Bet and its officers and to delegitimize its activities. The behavior of these parties, who try to convince even those who are not involved in criminal activities to avoid any cooperation with law enforcement, is a very serious [problem], and instills in these youth the incorrect belief that they won’t bear responsibility for their actions.”
The agency said it had treated the Jewish terror suspects as it treats all terror suspects.
“In light of the manipulative claims being put out by these interested parties, and as is clear in the indictment, it’s important to say that this was a terror attack in every sense, and that similar actions carried out by Arab attackers, including minors, were treated by the security services and law enforcement bodies in an identical fashion, and their perpetrators were convicted in a court of law and received severe sentences.”
According to the charge sheet, the suspect — whose name is barred from publication due to the fact that he is a minor — departed from the Pri Haaretz yeshiva accompanied by several other students late on the evening of October 12.
The group arrived at a hilltop between the Rehelim Junction and the Tapuah Junction, overlooking Route 60 — the West Bank’s main north-south artery. The suspect then grabbed a large rock weighing roughly two kilograms (4.4 pounds) and prepared to hurl it at a Palestinian vehicle, “out of an ideological motive of racism and hostility toward Arabs everywhere,” the indictment stated.
At the same time Rabi, her husband and their nine-year-old daughter were traveling from the Rehelim Junction toward the Tapuah Junction on their way home to the village of Biddya.
According to the indictment, the suspect, identifying the Palestinian plates, hurled the rock at the vehicle, which was traveling at a speed of roughly 100 kilometers per hour (60 mph). It smashed through the windshield of the passenger side and struck the woman in the head. Rabi’s husband managed to maintain control of the vehicle, calm his panicking daughter and speed to a nearby Nablus clinic, where his wife was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.
In its lengthy statement, the Shin Bet linked the Jewish youths suspected in the attack to the “hilltop youth” movement, which it described as a movement of teens “who had been expelled from the education system, criminals, who reject the authority of either rabbis or parents, who wander the hills [of the West Bank] without oversight and engage in violence activities, some of it secret, inside nearby Arab villages, endangering the safety of the entire region.”
It explained that the youths “adhere to an ideology of ‘active messianism’ that sees in the state and its institutions [which they call ‘Zionists’] an enemy that must be replaced through the toppling of democratic rule and the institution in its place of a ‘halachic state.'”
It noted that the youths don’t serve in the IDF or recognize the authority of Israeli state agencies, and “don’t shy away” from attacking Israeli security services.
“2018 saw a significant rise in violent incidents on the part of these activists, including against the security services, in one of which a female Border Police warrior was struck by a rock in her head that was thrown deliberately in her direction,” the agency said.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right activist who is one of the defense attorneys in the case, said the Shin Bet’s statement on Thursday “shows that the Shin Bet must not be allowed to investigate the hilltop youth.”
He called the accusations of obstruction evidence that “the Shin Bet doesn’t understand the job of [defense] lawyers, and is trying to deny the hilltop youth a legal defense.”
Because of the “frustration and hatred” evident in the statement, he said, “I demand that the Shin Bet stop investigating [the suspects] and hand their cases to the police.”
Police carried out the first string of arrests in the case, nabbing three Israeli teenagers suspected of involvement, on December 30 — over two months after Rabi’s death. A week later, two more of their peers were detained.
The Shin Bet partially lifted a gag order on January 7 to announce that the five boys were suspects in Rabi’s killing and revealed that they were all students at Rehelim’s Pri Haaretz religious boarding school.
In the days following the attack, a strict gag order was placed on the investigation, which was jointly conducted by the Shin Bet security service and the police’s nationalistic crimes unit. Nonetheless, defense officials told Israeli media that they believed young Israeli settlers were responsible for the stone throwing.
All five suspects were, for a time, deprived of the right to meet with their attorneys, though they were later granted counsel visits. Israeli law allows authorities to delay an attorney visit for a terrorism suspect by up to 21 days, subject to court appeal.
Israeli investigations into Jewish terrorism — as such cases are often referred to — are highly sensitive. Left-wing activists have accused authorities of dragging their feet in such cases in comparison to investigations into Palestinian attacks, while leaders of the settlement movement and the nationalist-religious camp have accused the Shin Bet of using torture in their questioning of young Jewish suspects.
As criticism against Israeli investigators increased, the Shin Bet began partially lifting the gag order imposed on the investigation in order to release details of the investigation that “indicate the extreme anti-Zionist characteristics” of the teenagers it arrested.
One piece of evidence included a video uncovered during the investigation that shows the burning of an Israeli flag. A second item the Shin Bet said its agents found in the room of a suspect was an Israeli flag with a swastika drawn over the Star of David along with the phrase, “Death to Zionists” daubed at the top.
The court released four of the five suspects on January 10, in what the minors’ attorneys claimed signaled a crumbling of the investigation against them.
An official with knowledge of the investigation told The Times of Israel on Thursday that the prosecution would not be pursuing charges against the four suspects in the case because the “evidentiary basis against them was insufficient.”
A week later, the prosecution announced that it intended to indict the prime suspect “in the coming days.”
The court at the time acknowledged that the evidence against the minor was “severe” and agreed to once again extend his remand.
On Wednesday, Judge Guy Avnon revealed that the evidence was a DNA sample belonging to the suspect that was found on the stone that struck Rabi in the head.
The official who spoke with The Times of Israel noted that investigators had looked into the prime suspect’s claim that he spends considerable time hiking through the area, which was why his DNA was found on the stone that stuck Rabi. The official said investigators found no other stones in the area with the teenager’s DNA and that the strand found on the deadly stone was a perfect match. Moreover, the official said that testimony from the head of the Pri Haaretz yeshiva as well as fellow students refuted the suspect’s alibi from the night of the incident.
The teenager’s attorney downplayed the findings, saying that if prosecutors had enough on his client, they would have indicted him immediately rather than requesting five remand extensions in order to complete the investigation.
The teen’s father called the indictment an “injustice” and said the family knows “our son is innocent.” He expressed confidence that the boy would be acquitted.