Who gave the order?

Former Shin Bet head Avraham Shalom resuscitates a discredited charge against Yitzhak Shamir in a new movie.

By
January 9, 2013 12:35
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gatekeepers 521. (photo credit: courtesy pr)

People tend to hold on to their truths, or lies, to the bitter end, and a new documentary about Israel’s domestic security service shows its former director Avraham Shalom doing just that about a particularly scandalous incident in the history of the service.

The one-time head of the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, is 85 years old and confined to a wheelchair; he is the “elder of the tribe” of the agency’s surviving former leaders, and was director from 1981 to 1985.

On the last Thursday in December, Shalom arrived at the Tel Aviv Cinémathèque accompanied by five other former Shin Bet chiefs: Jacob Perry, now running as a candidate for the Knesset on the Yesh Atid list; Carmi Gillon, on whose watch Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995; Ami Ayalon, a former Knesset Member and minister for the Labor party; Avi Dichter, a Likud Cabinet minister; and Yuval Diskin, who might also enter politics when his “cooling off” period expires in 2014.

They had come for the premiere of director Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers,” of which they are the stars. This film is a documentary in the talking heads genre – interviews and monologues by the six are interspersed with footage and illustrations relating to the events they discuss. They reveal to us the doubts they had and the decisions they made during their own stint as head of the agency.

The film has been well-received at festivals and by critics in the US and Europe. International audiences are likely impressed by the apparent honesty of the six as they share with the public the often agonizing decisions they were forced to make during their service. But the documentary does not add anything to the knowledge of those familiar with the reality of the last 45 years of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories – an occupation whose end is still not on the horizon.

The film focuses on the questions that have haunted Israelis since the Six Day War in June 1967, when then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol tasked the Shin Bet with countering terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How can we resolve the contradiction between democratic values and occupation? Can this be contradiction be resolved at all? What is permissible and legal in the battle against terrorism? All six emerge from the documentary as “peaceniks” for, as Perry remarks, “When you retire, you become a lefty.”

And that is exactly the problem. If this is their attitude why didn’t they try, while in office, to influence the political decision-making process? Why were they simply “technicians” in the struggle to prevent terrorism and not engineers and strategists who aspired to change reality? Shalom towers above the others as the film’s hero. But he is a tragic hero, one who does not express remorse or pangs of conscience. For him there is no room for morality in the war against terrorism.

Yet he is astonishingly candid about the Israeli occupation – he compares it and the actions of Israeli troops in the territories to those of the Nazis in occupied Europe during World War II. If such remarks had been uttered by a spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, or Palestinian representatives, or Israeli leftwing radicals, no one would have been surprised. But it is a shock to hear it from such a source. After all, Shalom knows better than anyone what happened in the Shin Bet’s dark interrogation chambers and was privy to the measures, operations and ploys used by the agency in the dingy alleys of Palestinian refugee camps and the major, heavily populated towns in the territories.

No wonder that such a man did not hesitate to order the murder in cold blood by Shin Bet agents of the two Palestinian terrorists who were captured alive in the infamous “Bus 300” hijacking in 1984. However, what is surprising is Shalom’s claim that he acted on orders from his boss, then- Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who died last year.

In its 64-year history, the Shin Bet has been involved in many thousands of operations involving surveillance, phonetapping, break-ins, counterespionage, and assassination of terrorists. But two incidents are engraved in the nation’s memory and traumatized the agency: “Bus 300” and the failure to prevent Rabin’s assassination.

Avraham Shalom Ben-Dor was born in 1928 in Austria and escaped with his parents to Palestine in 1939, after Nazi Germany annexed his homeland. He fought in the 1948 War of Independence and later joined the Shin Bet. He served in the operational sections of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, the external intelligence agency. Among his major feats is his being a member of the team that captured leading Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960.

Two decades later, in 1980, he was appointed by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin to lead the Shin Bet. Shalom was considered to be a tough, uncompromising and opinionated director. And all of these traits came into play on the night of April 12, 1984.

It was the era before cellphones, and Shalom called Shamir, who had replaced Begin eight months earlier, via the communication equipment of the prime minister’s bodyguards. Shamir, who was attending a political party gathering in Tel Aviv, was informed that terrorists had hijacked Bus 300, crowded with passengers, en route from Tel Aviv to the southern city of Ashkelon. Police roadblocks managed to stop the bus in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, preventing the terrorists from crossing into the Sinai Peninsula.

After a short conversation with Shamir, Shalom rushed to the scene. There he found Defense Minister Moshe Arens, senior military officers, Shin Bet operatives, reporters, TV crews and photographers.

The area had not been cordoned off, and chaos prevailed.

After the negotiations with the four terrorists to secure the release of the hostages failed, a team from Sayeret Matkal, an elite military unit, stormed the bus. One passenger (Irit Portuguese, a 19-year-old woman soldier) was killed and several others were wounded. Two terrorists were killed and two captured alive.

The two surviving hijackers were beaten and interrogated on the spot by military personnel, and then handed over to Ehud Yatom, the head of the Shin Bet’s operational department. Yatom and his team put the two terrorists in a van and drove to the nearest Shin Bet detention and interrogation center. But they never reached their destination. As instructed by Shalom, Yatom and his men stopped in a field, picked up rocks and smashed in the skulls of the two young terrorists. It was a brutal, cold-blooded killing.

The following morning, the IDF spokesman announced that all four terrorists had been killed during the raid on the bus. It was, of course, an outright lie.

Alex Levac, then a young photographer for the newly launched daily Hadashot, realized it immediately. He developed his film from the incident, which clearly showed the two Palestinian terrorists being taken away, alive, by security forces. Ignoring the state censorship instructions, the new daily published the photos and caused a storm.

First, Defense Minister Arens, using emergency powers from the days when Britain ruled Palestine, ordered the paper shut down for several days. Then the government established secret commissions of inquiry to determine who had murdered the terrorists, and who had given the order.

Shalom and his cronies in the Shin Bet lied to the commissions, and tried to incriminate Brigadier-General Yitzhak Mordechai (who later became defense minister) as the killer.

Shalom also attempted to persuade the commissions that the order “not to take prisoners” came from Arens and Shamir.

Very soon he had to change his version and admit that Arens had not been involved at all. But he still insisted that in a meeting months earlier, Shamir had left to Shalom the decision of how to deal with terrorists who had surrendered.

Shamir flatly denied the accusation.

However, since the meetings at that time between prime ministers and their chiefs of intelligence were totally private, with no witnesses and no note-taker, it was a case of one version against the other. (One of the results of the incident was that meetings ever since have always been held in the presence of the prime minister’s military attaché and/ or his note-taker).

The commissions and then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir could not verify Shalom’s claim, and backed Shamir’s version that he had not given the order. It was recommended that Shalom and 10 Shin Bet operatives be indicted and charged with murder and perjury. But at the last moment the government circumvented the law and granted the suspects clemency, even before they were tried.

“You know better,” I told Shalom, as he was waiting in the lobby for the screening.

“You know that all the commissions found you guilty and cleared Shamir, so why are you raising the false claim once again?” “Because this is my truth,” he replied. “Is it fair and honest,” I continued, “to renew the accusation knowing that Shamir, who passed away last June, cannot defend himself?” “At the time,” Shalom replied, “I suggested that both of us, Shamir and I, should take a lie detector test. He refused.”

Arens also denied Shalom’s accusation.

“He withdrew his claim against me at the time,” he told me, “not to mention that I was not his immediate boss. He and the Shin Bet were subordinate to the prime minister. But I am not angry that he is repeating his claims in the film.”

But Gilada Diamante, Shamir’s daughter, who, like her father, served in the Mossad, is furious. “I believe my father,” she told me. “I and my brother Yair [now No. 4 on the Likud Beytenu list for the Knesset elections] know that our father was telling the truth. Our father was an honest man with integrity. If he made a mistake, he was the first one to admit it. The commissions of inquiry found that our father did not give the order. I don’t understand why Shalom is raising his false claim once again. It’s not honest to do so when our father cannot defend himself.”

Yossi Melman is a commentator on security and intelligence matters for Walla, a Hebrew news website.


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