Anti-Arab 'Jewish underground' rising in settlement near Hebron, Israel says

September 15, 1994|By New York Times News Service

QIRYAT ARBA, Occupied West Bank -- Although they are skimpy with details, Israeli authorities suggest that a terrorist network of rabidly anti-Arab Jews has sprouted, with roots in this militant settlement on the outskirts of Hebron.

Eight or nine men have been arrested in recent days, including two army officers, and government officials say that some were caught "at the last minute" as they were about to go out to kill Palestinians.

In Qiryat Arba, home to most of the suspects, residents say the allegations are baseless, calling them part of a government campaign to delegitimize settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to depict them as wild-eyed radicals out to block peace with the Arabs.

If anything, they say, the real victims are the arrested men. Some, they insist, were hooded, beaten and tortured in rat-infested cells by Shin Bet security agents, assertions declared baseless by a special investigator from the attorney general's office.

Allegations of Shin Bet torture are hardly new, having filled countless human rights reports. What is new is that some of the same political figures who used to dismiss those charges when the supposed victims were Palestinians are protesting now that the targets are fellow Israelis.

Whatever the suspects' physical condition, there is no question that they are not being allowed to see their lawyers. It is a familiar practice in Israel, defended by the Shin Bet as essential to keep sensitive investigations from being compromised. But it has produced accusations from settler leaders and Israeli civil rights groups -- not normally political bedfellows -- that the government is trampling on human rights.

The arrests raise questions about the possible rise of a new "Jewish underground," armed radicals intent on killing Arabs as a counterpoint to Palestinian militants who have killed Jews in growing numbers despite the peace agreement signed a year ago by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The phrase "Jewish underground" has dominated Israeli headlines, evoking memories of a network that carried out deadly bombings and other raids on West Bank Arabs in the early 1980s.

A central figure is Lt. Oren Edri, 23, one of two young officers from

Qiryat Arba implicated in the case and accused of passing along army weapons to others in the settlement.

Among those said to be receiving weapons is an Arab who converted a few years ago from Islam to Judaism, changed his name from Mahmoud al-Jabari to Yaacov Ben-David and moved from Hebron to Qiryat Arba.

In Qiryat Arba, suspicion fills the air, with some residents accusing others of being Shin Bet spies.

The arrests underscore the widening gap between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the 130,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. While many are political centrists and would yield to decisions about about their future, a militant core does not recognize the authority or legitimacy of the government.

The name-calling and threats on both sides have reached a point that some Israelis consider dangerous.

A leaflet signed by a group called "Sword of David," which took responsibility for several recent killings of Arabs, was left last week at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the Hebron mosque killer who was buried near Qiryat Arba's main gate.

The leaflet called Mr. Rabin a "traitor" for his peace policies. "For that," it said, "his sentence is death."

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