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Son of ex-minister Rehavam Ze’evi among two charged in cold case murder of teen

Indictment says Binyamin Ze’evi was part of a group that lured Nissim Shitrit, 17, and beat him to death, in case linked to cult leader Eliezer Berland

Binyamin Ze'evi outside the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on October 19, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Binyamin Ze'evi outside the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on October 19, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The son of former minister Rehavam Ze’evi was named Sunday as one of the two men charged last week in connection with the 1986 murder of a teen linked to convicted sex offender Eliezer Berland’s Shuvu Bonim sect.

Binyamin Ze’evi and Shuvu Bonim follower Baruch Sharvit were indicted Friday over the murder of 17-year-old Nissim Shitrit in 1986. Shitrit’s body was never found and the charges were the first made in connection with his death.

A statement released on behalf of Ze’evi on Sunday denied that he had murdered the teen: “I did not murder anyone and the truth will eventually be revealed.”

The statement additionally said that the “suspicions against Mr. Ze’evi are based on a single testimony of one of the community members (Baruch Sharvit) on the basis of instructions he received from a rabbi at a meeting while detained.”

Last month, the Kan public broadcaster reported that Sharvit met with Berland in the interrogation room, where the sect leader instructed his follower to provide information to the investigators.

Known by the nickname “Gandhi,” Rehavam Ze’evi was a politician for the far-right Moledet party. He was shot dead in 2001 by Palestinian gunmen from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group at Jerusalem’s Hyatt Hotel. An investigative TV report in 2016 published allegations of rape and intimidation against the former general.

Tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi, assassinated by the PFLP in 2001 (photo credit: Flash90)
Rehavam Ze’evi (Flash90)

Prosecutors on Friday asked for Binyamin Ze’evi and Sharvit to remain in detention until the end of legal proceedings.

“The serious acts attributed to the accused indicate danger to the public despite the lapse of time since the murder,” read the indictment, published Friday, when Ze’evi was as yet unnamed. “The fact that this is a multi-stage event, a very complex and extremely cruel event, which was intended to impose the lifestyles of the defendants on the deceased and the public, establishes a reasonable basis for fear that his release will endanger public safety.”

According to the indictment, Shitrit was suspected by members of the sect of having some form of relationship with a girl, in contravention of the sect’s religious norms.

The teen was picked up from his boarding school in Ashdod by the sect’s “religious police,” in January 1986, four months before he disappeared. He was driven to Jerusalem and taken to a secluded location, where he was beaten.

Baruch Sharvit on a screen via a video link during a court hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, on December 3, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shitrit, who was a volunteer with the police, filed a complaint over the assault, and one of his suspected killers was detained for questioning. That individual fled the country after Shitrit was killed, in an attempt to construct an alibi, Channel 12 news reported.

The report said that Shitrit was lured to his death four months later by a woman connected to the sect who pretended that she wanted to spend the night with him. When Shitrit arrived at the address she gave him, he was beaten by the same group of followers who carried out the first assault.

Nissim Shitrit in an undated photo. (Screenshot: Kan public broadcaster)

When the suspects realized the attack was making too much noise, they moved to a second location outside Jerusalem, where they allegedly killed and buried Shitrit.

In a documentary broadcast by Kan in 2020, one of Berland’s former disciples said that the “religious police” murdered the boy, dismembered him and buried his body in Eshtaol Forest near Beit Shemesh.

Nobody has been indicted yet in the second, related case of the murder of 41-year-old Avi Edri in 1990. He was found beaten to death in Ramot Forest in the north of Jerusalem.

Avi Edri. (Courtesy)

Berland was released last week from remand after he was detained in connection with the two murders — but remains in prison to serve a sentence on unrelated charges. Police have accused Berland of sending his followers to kill Shitrit. His followers have also been tied to Edri’s death.

But on Thursday prosecutors said they would release Berland and his son-in-law, Tzvi Tzucker, as well as a third suspect — an unnamed Haredi mayor — under restrictions.

Though he was released from custody in regards to the decades-old murders, he will remain in prison for swindling sick and elderly followers out of millions of shekels. He previously served a sentence in prison for sexual assault.

Rabbi Eliezer Berland arrives for a court hearing in Jerusalem, November 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Dozens of figures — including many with ties to local and national politics — have been questioned in connection with the two alleged homicides, after the case burst back onto the scene in mid-October with a series of arrests.

On Thursday it was reported that another suspect in the killing of Edri recently died of complications related to the coronavirus at a northern hospital.

The cult-like Shuvu Bonim offshoot of the Bratslav Hasidic sect has had repeated run-ins with the law, including attacking witnesses.

Berland fled Israel in 2013 amid allegations that he had sexually assaulted several female followers. After evading arrest for three years and slipping through various countries, Berland returned to Israel and was sentenced to 18 months in prison in November 2016, on two counts of indecent acts and one case of assault, as part of a plea deal that included seven months of time served. He was freed just five months later, in part due to his ill health.

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