JERUSALEM (Jul. 10)
Guilty verdicts were handed down by a Jerusalem district court today on 15 Jewish defendants from the West Bank charged with a series of violent acts against Arab civilians and membership in a Jewish underground terrorist organization. Sentences will be pronounced on Sunday. The three-judge panel found Menahem Livni, alleged ringleader, Shaul Nir and Uzi Sharbaf, guilty of murder and attempted murder in connection with the 1983 machinegun and grenade attack on the Islamic College in Hebron in which three Palestinian students were killed. Two other defendants, Yitzhak Ganiram and Barak Nir, were convicted of attempted murder and manslaughter for their part in the attack.
ONE OF THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL TRIALS
The verdicts, rendered 13 months after the trial began, ended one of the most controversial legal proceedings in Israel’s history. The defendants, all Orthodox Jews, including Gush Emunim militants, had strong support from religious and rightwing nationalist elements in Israel and among Jews abroad.
They claimed that whatever actions they engaged in were in defense of Jewish lives and property because the government allegedly failed to protect Jewish settlers from Arab terrorists.
But the judges, Yaacov Bazak, president of the court, Zvi Cohen and Shmuel Finkelstein, refused to buy that argument. They rejected a defense motion to admit as evidence examples of what the accused said was a deterioration of security for Jewish settlers in the territory.
The terrorist gang was rounded up after a foiled attempt to bomb four Arab buses in East Jerusalem in March, 1984 and exposure of a plot to blow up Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem. Originally, 27 defendants were put on trial.
Ten of them were convicted earlier on the basis of plea-bargained confessions and are either serving sentences or have completed their time. Two others, Israel Defense Force officers, are to be tried separately and are presently free on bail.
PLEA BARGAINING PLAYED A ROLE
Plea bargaining played a part on the convictions of some of the remaining 15 defendants. A charge of attempted murder was reduced to causing grave bodily harm in the June, 1980 car bombings which maimed two West Bank Arab mayors and blinded an Israeli Druze border policeman when he tried to defuse a bomb in the car of a third Arab mayor.
One of the accused in that case, Yitzhak Novik, said in court that the verdict was unjust because “I did what ! did in order to protect my family and neighbors. “He claimed that “it’s been proven” that the car bombings resulted in a diminution of Arab terrorism in the West Bank for two years.
Four defendants were convicted of attempted murder for planting time bombs in the chassis of four Arab-owned buses on March 4, 1984. The bombs were timed to explode while the buses were making their rounds through the crowded streets of an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
JUDGES WERE DIVIDED
The judges were divided over whether the plan to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque on the Temple Mount was a conspiracy. Bazak held it was not because no date was set for the attack. But Cohen and Finkelstein ruled there was a conspiracy because the defendants acquired wired explosives, prepared bombs and maintained surveillance of the mosque.
Yehuda Etzion, described as the No. 2 man of terrorist underground, was said to have been obsessed with the need to “cleanse” the Temple Mount, ancient site of the Second Temple. He considered the presence of Islamic houses of worship there an “abomination.” He told the court history would vindicate him because the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa mosque would, eventually, be removed.
The court heard character witnesses testify on behalf of the accused. These included Gen. Rehavim Ze’evi, former commanding officer of the Central Command; Yahad Party Knesset member Binyamin Ben-Eliezer; and former Finance Minister Yigal Cohen-Orgad of Likud. All accused the present and past governments of laxity toward Arab terrorists in the West Bank and failure to protect Jewish settlers.
The trial, which began in the spring of 1984, was suspended until after the July Knesset elections and resumed last September, opened the court to charges of favoritism toward the defendants. Although bail was denied, the accused were allowed to mingle freely with family and friends. They were allowed to talk to reporters during recess and had access to telephones.
A minor scandal occurred last month when the defendants, being transported from the courthouse to jail, were permitted to take a swim in the Mediterranean enroute. The police officer in charge was severely reprimanded and demoted.
SENTENCES ARE BEING AWAITED
The sentences are being awaited with keen anticipation. Life sentences are mandatory for the men convicted of murder and tough sentences seem likely for the others. But most Israelis doubt any of the convicts will serve more than token time.
Israel’s release last May of 1,150 Palestinian and other terrorists serving sentences for murder and other serious crimes — in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held by Palestinian terrorists in Damascus — touched off demands for the immediate release of the accused Jewish terrorists. The issue became hotly political.
Premier Shimon Peres found it necessary to ask Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir for an opinion. Zamir ruled that the legal process must be followed through to its conclusion and only after sentences are pronounced can the defendants apply for clemency.
President Chaim Herzog, who alone has power to grant pardons, said he would consider applications individually on their merit, after sentencing.