A wall at a bilingual Hebrew-Arabic school in Jerusalem reads "death to Arabs.".
(photo credit: ISRAEL FIRE AND RESUCE SERVICES)
On the heels of three members of the Jewish extremist group Lehava being indicted for allegedly setting an integrated Jerusalem school on fire and spray-painting anti-Arab graffiti there, police on Tuesday announced the arrests of 10 more members of the anti-assimilation organization for incitement.
The homes of the radical group’s members, including its leader Bentzi Gopstein, were raided early Tuesday throughout the country, including in Jerusalem, Kiryat Arba, Petah Tikva and Netivot, police said.
All 10 suspects were subsequently remanded by a judge at Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court following their arraignments.
Lehava propagates the racist ideology of the late Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in New York City in 1990 after his radical Kach Party was outlawed in Israel for inciting racism.
In a surprising twist, Meretz City Councilman and east Jerusalem portfolio head Dr. Meir Margalit condemned the arrests as heavy handed.
“As a human rights activist, I wonder if it was necessary to arrest these 10 Lehava members,” Margalit said by phone Tuesday. “I support the basic right of all citizens to express themselves freely and without any pressure from the outside.”
While Margalit said he finds the group’s racist message offensive, he conceded that their freedom of expression is a “basic principle in a democracy.”
“I prefer right-wingers to express themselves freely, even if I don’t like their ideas,” the left-wing councilman added.
Calling the arrests a “disgrace,” Gopstein’s attorney, Itamar Ben Gvir, claimed the raid was the result of a left-wing conspiracy.
“The politicians from the Left applied pressure to the police to act against Lehava, even though it is clear to them that this is a law-abiding organization openly acting against assimilation,” he said .
The arrests follow a Saturday protest in the capital’s Zion Square demanding Lehava be outlawed.
On Thursday, the names of the three Lehava members arrested December 7 for the price-tag attack at the Jewish-Arab Max Rayne Hand in Hand School were released by Jerusalem Police.
Suspects Yitzhak Gabai and brothers Nahman and Shlomo Twito, aged 18 to 22 and from in the West Bank settlement of Betar Illit, allegedly lit a preschool classroom in the Pat neighborhood school on fire on November 29.
The trio is also charged with spray-painting Hebrew graffiti on the school’s interior walls stating “Kahane was right,” “You can’t coexist with a cancer,” “Enough with assimilation,” and “Death to Arabs.”
In a statement, the Shin Bet said the three targeted the nation’s largest integrated educational institution “because Jews and Arabs learn together at the school and the goal was to put opposition to coexistence and assimilation in the public eye.”
Funded by an NGO promoting Jewish and Arab coexistence, the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School serves more than 600 Arab and Jewish pupils from pre-K to 12th grade throughout Jerusalem. It is overseen by Jewish and Arab co-principals.
According to the three suspects’ attorneys, Ben-Gvir and Avihai Hajbi, their confessions were coerced under duress during interrogations that followed sleep deprivation and threats.
“We discovered that they had been seriously abused, sleep deprived, faced mental pressure, and one of the suspects said that, already on the first day, a Shin Bet investigator threatened to ‘kick his ass’ if he didn’t confess.”
Due to the alleged coercion, both attorneys have claimed that the confessions are inadmissible.
The Shin Bet described the arson at the school as “the latest in a series of violent incidents involving Kahanist activists from Lehava.”
Lehava last made national headlines in August when its members attempted to disrupt the wedding of an Arab man to a Jewish woman who had converted to Islam.