On eve of trial of Rabin suspect, a grandmother frets over future

NEW YORK, March 18 (JTA) — Pnina Peli is worried about her granddaughter. Margalit Har-Shefi, a friend of Yigal Amir’s from their time together as students at Bar-Ilan University Law School, is slated to stand trial in connection with the November 1995 murder of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Her granddaughter was friendly with Amir, who was convicted of the assassination, only because they jointly coordinated student Shabbat trips to Israeli settlements in areas threatened by the peace process, including the West Bank and Golan Heights, Peli said in an interview during a recent visit to New York. And even though Amir — who is now serving a life sentence in prison — had romantic hopes about his relationship with Har-Shefi, her granddaughter was never interested in him that way, Peli said. “She had no reason to not be friendly with him. He was a nice intelligent boy, until he became a murderer,” she said. Har-Shefi is from a prominent Israeli family. Peli, her maternal grandmother, is one of the founding mothers of Orthodox feminism. In 1986, in Jerusalem, she organized an international conference to examine the role of women in Jewish law. Her grandfather, Pinchas Peli, who died in 1989, was a professor of Jewish thought at Ben-Gurion University, a popular commentator on the Torah and a lecturer around the world. Har-Shefi’s mother, Bitkha, is one of the Pelis’ daughters. She teaches Talmud at the Reform rabbinical seminary’s Jerusalem campus and her father, Dov, runs a packaging plant in their West Bank settlement town of Beit El. Another of the Pelis’ daughters is Emunah Elon, who serves as the adviser to the prime minister on the status of women. Elon is married to Benny Elon, a son of former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon. Benny Elon, an outspoken member of the Knesset, represents the right-wing Moledet Party. It took prosecutors more than a year to decide whether to file charges against Har-Shefi. Har-Shefi was arrested immediately after the assassination, and questioned for close to 20 days about suspicions that she was part of a plot to assassinate the prime minister and carry out terrorist attacks against Arabs. However, she was subsequently released with no charges being filed. Since that period, no new evidence has come to light. Har-Shefi’s former attorney said he was totally surprised by the recent decision to press charges against his client. The prosecution explained the move, saying that it first wanted to await results of the investigation of five other suspects in connection with the assassination. It also said it was waiting for the rulings in the conspiracy trials of Yigal and his brother Hagai Amir, and their friend, Dror Adani, in which Har-Shefi was a defense witness. In October 1996, they were all found guilty. Har-Shefi, 21, has been charged with knowing of Yigal Amir’s plans to assassinate Rabin and failing to notify authorities. She has also been charged with providing Amir with information to commit criminal acts. According to the charge sheet and excerpts from police questioning of Har-Shefi that have been published, the two first met on campus, within the framework of activities against the Labor government’s policies. The prosecution has said that on more than one occasion, Amir told Har-Shefi that he believed that a religious edict that justifies killing to save Jewish lives applied to Rabin, and that he believed that Rabin should be killed. The prosecution also said Amir confided in Har-Shefi a number of times about specific plans to kill Rabin, but circumstances prevented it. One of those instances was Jan. 22, 1995, when the two attended a demonstration in Jerusalem at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, where Rabin was due to take part in a ceremony. Because of a suicide bombing the same day in another part of the country, Rabin did not attend the ceremony. On the way back from the demonstration, according to the charge sheet, Amir told Har-Shefi that he had brought his pistol with him and had planned to shoot Rabin. Har-Shefi has said that in her circles, many people were deeply disturbed by the political process and the idea of killing Rabin had been expressed, with a certain amount of cynicism. “It’s possible that I have said I would be happy if Rabin would die,” Har Shefi was quoted telling police. “We know that there are lots of people who speak like this, but I never thought it would actually happen. Thousands of people heard him speak like this. Who thought he would go and do it? “It’s fate’s joke that I should be sitting here, because I always told him not to do it.” The charge sheet also states that Amir told Har-Shefi of plans to form an underground that would protect Jewish settlements after Israeli redeployments in the West Bank and would carry out attacks on Arabs. The prosecution said Amir asked Har-Shefi for help in setting this up. According to the prosecution, Har-Shefi told Amir the location of the storehouse for weapons in Beit El, the Jewish settlement where she lives. The charge sheet also states that she gave Amir the name of a Beit El resident who could provide him with information to build explosives. According to her grandmother, however, Har-Shefi refused Amir’s request to put him in touch with someone who could obtain explosives. “She told him she thought he was crazy and said she’d call the police if she thought he was serious,” Peli said. An hour or two after Rabin was murdered, Har-Shefi remembered what Amir had said and called his family’s house to see whether he was there. When Amir’s brother told her that he was not, “she lay down on her bed shaking,” said Peli, who called the Har-Shefi home soon after that. It is on the basis of that phone call to the Amir home and on Amir’s request for help getting explosives that the government’s indictment of Har-Shefi is based, said Peli. If Har-Shefi is as innocent of involvement as her grandmother thinks she is, then why is she going on trial? “Because the left is trying to harass the right all the time,” Peli said. Those on the political left “want to get back into the government and would sacrifice a 21-year-old girl to do it, sure,” Peli said. According to Barukh Binah, minister counselor for public affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, “Everything in the judicial system in Israel is done according to law.” Peli said Har-Shefi’s indictment has shocked the family and all who know them. “We can’t even contemplate her being imprisoned.” Her daughter and son-in-law estimate that their legal bills will total at least $100,000 by the time Har-Shefi’s trial ends. “I feel angry about it. I’m concerned, certainly, about Margalit, that she should be put on trial and about the financial side of it, which may leave the family bankrupt.” (JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY