Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday closed the criminal investigation into Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) interrogators who had allegedly tortured a Palestinian accused of Rina Shnerb’s murder in 2019.
The case was noteworthy for many reasons, including that it was only one of two full criminal investigations into Shin Bet handling of Palestinians in recent years. The case was also in the spotlight after Samer Arbid almost died from his interrogation because of the uproar created by Shnerb’s murder.
Mandelblit’s decision said the case was closed based on the absence of evidence for the commission of a crime.
The unusual legalistic language appeared to be a hint that some (though not all) of the allegations about how harshly the Shin Bet interrogated Arbid may have been true, but they could not constitute a crime since there is a defense under Israeli law of necessity to prevent an imminent “ticking bomb” type of attack.
The homeland-security spy agency has said its interrogation of Arbid led to locating materials that would have been used for future attacks.
The trial of Arbid and the rest of his terrorist cell of five Palestinians allegedly involved in the murder of Shnerb opened in January 2020 in the Judea Military Court at Camp Ofer.
The trial is nowhere near conclusion due to a combination of delays by the coronavirus crisis and an unusual amount of legal battles between the defense and the IDF prosecution over how much evidence must be turned over. Some of the evidentiary disputes have even been appealed, which always takes up even more time.
Lt.-Co. (ret.) Maurice Hirsch, a former IDF chief prosecutor in the West Bank and a lawyer for the Shnerb family, has said the defendants are dragging out the case regarding the treatment of Arbid and other issues, though they know the evidence is strong and will eventually lead to their conviction.
The five suspects – Arbid, Walid Hanatshe, Abed el-Razeq Faraj, Yzaen Majames and Kasem Shibli – were indicted in mid-December 2019.
Then former state attorney Shai Nitzan, who ordered the probe, told The Jerusalem Post exclusively: “It is not clear what led him to need to be hospitalized. It is unclear… I am not saying necessarily for this case, but maybe a man while he is in detention can get a heart attack. Is it clear that it was because of torture or applying pressure? It’s not at all clear.”
“It is not simple that they beat him” [Nitzan was saying for argument’s sake and not to confirm or deny what happened in the Arbid case] “and that because of that he ended up in the hospital… We do not know that what they did was what caused him to be sent to the hospital. Definitely not. Definitely not.”
Arbid’s lawyer said his client had heart problems and broken bones from the interrogation, and there was a period of days when it had been unclear whether he would survive, which set off global criticism.
Mandelblit said even though the legal case would be closed, the Shin Bet would make some changes to its interrogations’ processes to try to avoid similar incidents in the future.
In mid-December 2019, the Shin Bet announced it had uncovered and dismantled a 50-person terrorist cell believed to be behind a string of deadly attacks in the area.
According to the Shin Bet’s statement, the investigation into the Dolev attack on Shnerb revealed that the cell planned to carry out additional attacks in the near future.
AS PART of the investigation, approximately 50 Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) operatives, including senior members of the Palestinian terrorist group, were arrested. A large number of weapons were seized, including M-16s, Kalashnikovs, Uzis, Galil automatic rifles, pistols with silencers, ammunition and fertilizers to build bombs. Walkie-talkies, telescopic devices and other items were discovered by security officials.
Many of the weapons were found during a joint IDF and Israel Police raid of a home belonging to one of Arbid’s relatives.
The PFLP cell members were arrested in the Ramallah area in late 2019. They were involved in shooting attacks in December 2017 and in March 2019. There were no casualties in either attack.
In October 2019, the Shin Bet announced it had arrested suspects behind the attack at Ein Bubin Spring, near the settlement of Dolev, in which Shnerb was killed and her father and brother were wounded.
According to the Shin Bet’s mid-December statement, Arbid prepared the explosive device and detonated it when he saw the Shnerb family approaching the spring.
The Shin Bet said those arrested in October 2019 revealed the details of the preparations they made for the attack and how they implemented them.
“Evidence suggests that intelligence gathering prior to the attack began several weeks before its realization,” the Shin Bet said, adding that the cell members visited the area of the spring on various occasions to outline the attack before they presented the plan to Arbid and received his approval.
The night before the Dolev attack, the cell members made their way north of Ein Bubin Spring, armed with guns and explosives. Arbid left Shibli and Majames in the field along with the explosive device, and he drove back toward Ramallah to leave the vehicle far from the scene of the attack.
About an hour later, Hanatashe, who funded the attack, drove Arbid back to where the other cell members were waiting and left. Members of the cell led by Arbid then walked for two hours toward the spring, where they placed the explosive device near the entrance to the spring and went up to a spot overlooking the place.
After several hours of waiting, the squad members noticed the Shnerb family approaching and passed the message to Arbid, who pressed the trigger leading the powerful charge to explode as the family members walked by.
Following the attack, the cell members escaped to Ramallah, where they split up.
“Intelligence decryption and a strenuous investigation have thwarted attacks planned by the cell in the immediate future,” a senior Shin Bet officer said, adding that had the planned attacks been carried out, many lives would have been lost.