On This Day: Israeli minister Rehavam Ze'evi assassinated by terrorists 20 years ago

Ze'evi was a right-wing politician who advocated for population transfer. He was killed by Palestinian terrorists outside his hotel room.

Rehavam Ze'evi, also known as "Gandhi," of the right-wing Moledet party gestures as he speaks with a member of the religious Shas party during a no-confidence debate in the Knesset (Parliament) October 26, 1998. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rehavam Ze'evi, also known as "Gandhi," of the right-wing Moledet party gestures as he speaks with a member of the religious Shas party during a no-confidence debate in the Knesset (Parliament) October 26, 1998.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

October 17, 2021, marks 20 years since the assassination of Israeli tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi in a terrorist attack on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Ze'evi, a member of the pre-state Palmach organization, was a former general in the IDF and later founded the right-wing Moledet Party. In his time in politics, he was a staunch advocate of population transfer, meaning the transfer of the Arab populations in the West Bank and Gaza into the neighboring Arab states such as Jordan and Egypt. 

He had merged his party with other right-wing parties Tekuma and Herut in 1999 to form the National Union – today led by Bezalel Smotrich as part of the Religious Zionist Party – and was tourism minister in the government of prime minister Ariel Sharon. Ze'evi resigned from his post just days before his death, but his resignation had not yet kicked in. 

On the morning of October 17, 2001, Ze'evi was staying at the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem, known today as the Dan Jerusalem Hotel, eating breakfast with his wife. At the time, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) was providing government ministers heightened protection over fears of being targeted by Palestinian terrorists. However, Ze'evi had refused bodyguards, the Israeli news outlet Globes reported at the time.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had been tracking Ze'evi's movements and monitoring his routine, preparing the attack in advance. 

At 6:00 a.m., one of the assassins, Hamid Quran, scoped out the hotel dining room in advance, having known Ze'evi's schedule. Ze'evi and his wife arrived just 20 minutes later. 

The assassins began to move, securing their guns and getting into position near the minister's room. Shortly after 6:50 a.m., Ze'evi began heading back to his room, his wife and driver following closely behind.

He would pass by the assailants, including Quran, who shot him three times. 

The killers quickly fled to Palestinian territory in the West Bank while Ze'evi was found by his wife and driver and evacuated to Hadassah-University Medical Center. He died three hours later.

The killing was reportedly meant as a retaliation for the IDF's killing of PFLP leader Abu Ali Mustafa that August.

"The Israelis killed one prominent leader and Mr. Zeevi is one of those who have very, very right-wing points of view on discrimination – he wants to deport Palestinians and he is with the most severe terrorism against the Palestinians," senior PFLP official Rabah Muhana told the BBC at the time.

The coffin of slain Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi arrives at Mt. Herzel military cemetery in Jerusalem October 18, 2001. (credit: REUTERS/Natalie Behring NB/CRB)The coffin of slain Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi arrives at Mt. Herzel military cemetery in Jerusalem October 18, 2001. (credit: REUTERS/Natalie Behring NB/CRB)

A funeral was promptly held for Ze'evi and sparked an immediate backlash in Israel, with public outcries calling for  the assassins to be arrested. 

During Operation Defensive Shield the following year in 2002, the killers were discovered to be holding up in Yasser Arafat's Mukataa compound in Ramallah. Eventually, due to an internationally mediated agreement, they were moved to a Palestinian prison in Jericho. But in 2006, Israeli forces captured Quran and several other alleged members of the PFLP cell in Operation Bringing Home the Goods, due to what was alleged to be a violation of this agreement on the part of the Palestinian Authority. 

At the trial, Quran, who expressed no remorse, pleaded guilty and in 2007 was sentenced by the Jerusalem District Court to two life sentences and an additional 100 years.

"Murdering a minister differs from murdering an ordinary citizen by the fact that it constitutes direct harm to a symbol of the State and harms its sovereignty," the three-judge panel wrote in their sentencing. 

"Not only has the defendant shown no remorse for his actions, but he has declared before the court that he would not hesitate to repeat them." 

Also sentenced was PFLP secretary-general Ahmad Sa'adat, who had been captured along with Quran in the operation. He received 30 years for leading the PFLP and for his role in the assassination.

Ze'evi's death was the first assassination of an Israeli minister by Palestinian terrorists and the first of an Israeli government official since prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. 

However, the impact of Ze'evi's death remains to this day, despite the controversial views and actions of the man himself. A law was passed by the Knesset in 2005 to commemorate him, and a statue of him adorns the Eilat promenade, which was also named after him.

His killers remain in prison, though Sa'adat is currently among the top of a list of Palestinian prisoners that Hamas is demanding Israel release in a prisoner swap, alongside former Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti. 

The 20th anniversary of Ze'evi's killing comes following the murder of British lawmaker MP David Amess, who was reportedly killed in a terrorist attack as well. 

Etgar Lefkovits contributed to this report.