Despite growing up in England as a hardcore Tottenham Hotspurs soccer fan (“the best football team on earth”), all Maurice Hirsch ever wanted to do in his adolescent years was jump out of airplanes for the Israeli paratroopers.
Instead, he became one of the more influential IDF West Bank prosecutors of recent years, both admired and derided, determining policy for all prosecutions of Palestinians. As such, he was exposed to the most sensitive intelligence regarding West Bank terror trends. Based on this intelligence, Lt.-Col. Hirsch, the newly retired chief West Bank prosecutor, is convinced that the area will become the next Hamastan once Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dies.Hirsch tells The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview, his first since retiring on January 31, that he sees peace talks with even Abbas’s Fatah as futile.“I think the basic understanding is that the Fatahrun West Bank will not last for very long... once Mahmoud Abbas passes on. The basic understanding is that Hamas will take over. Very soon, we will find ourselves with a Hamas-led government in the West Bank,” he says.“If Mahmoud Abbas dies without there being elections to appoint a replacement,” he explains, “the Palestinian constitution requires that the head of the parliament, Abdel Aziz Dwek, an elected Hamasnik, assume the role of the president.”WHAT INTELLIGENCE is Hirsch basing his information on, and what makes him tick? The first thing to know about him is that he made aliya after having already completed law school in England, and has some strong views about Israel as a refuge from antisemitism, such as that he says he experienced in England.He got into the IDF legal division through a combination of luck, daring and audacity.When he first approached the division, then deputy military advocate general Yossi Telraz wanted nothing to do with him. With a mischievous smirk, Hirsch recalls that the overweight Telraz looked like a comic book character and essentially told him “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”After being tossed around to multiple basic trainings and ending up in limbo at Bakum, the processing center for recruits, he eventually convinced a human resources officer to send him back to the legal division.When told again that he could not join, he asked the soldier for her name.“I was going back to the recruiting office to tell them I would never come back [to the army] because of her,” he says he told her. Suddenly, she gave him a form to join the legal-officer track.Hirsch displayed the same aggressive, take-no-prisoner tactics in court.He tells the story of Raed Sheikh, a Palestinian infamous in Israel during the second intifada for killing with his bare hands at least one of two Israeli reservists who had inadvertently driven into Ramallah, and then rushing to a window to bathe in the praise from the crowd below as he held out his blood-stained hands.Hirsch describes the case against Sheikh as “rock solid.” Conviction was a near certainty. But this was not enough for him, and he tells how he beat down an argument from Sheikh’s lawyer.The indictment said that Sheikh had killed one of the soldiers by beating him to death with a plastic pipe.The defense lawyer rejected the theory as impractical, trying to show that it was untrue and Sheikh was innocent.Attacking the prosecution’s evidence, he asked: “How can a plastic pipe cause such damage?” Hirsch starts to grin again. It just so happened that on that day, parts of the prosecution’s prefab offices were being renovated. One of the prefabs was being fitted with a kitchen that included thick plastic piping.So he left the courtroom, cut off a piece of pipe, and while no one was looking, slipped it under his desk in court.When the defense attorney contended that plastic piping was not strong enough to be used as a lethal weapon, Hirsch pulled out the piece of piping and smacked it loudly on the table to show how strong and dangerous it could be.He says he would have won the case anyway, but that his “shtick” had tremendous theatrical value and showed his aggressive approach to shooting down every argument his adversaries could muster.This aggressiveness won him enemies among lawyers for Palestinians, with top lawyer Khalid al-Araj describing him as “attacking, hyper-aggressive, ready to fight about everything and not clear about what he wants.”Another top attorney for Palestinians, Gaby Lasky, did not want to speak about Hirsch personally, but said the IDF prosecution during Hirsch’s reign was too hard on Palestinian minors – a regular issue in the courts – and thought too little about the effects of bringing children to court and sending them to jail.In other cases, such as that of Avraham Hasno, a resident of Kiryat Arba who was intentionally run down in October 2015, Hirsch was publicly attacked by right-wing Jewish activists for being too lenient. And within the IDF legal division, he sometimes banged heads with superiors. Yet even if he sometimes was a polarizing figure, many in the IDF and among those representing Palestinians came to respect him as a serious opponent with a formidable mind.THESE CHARACTERISTICS explain some of Hirsch’s level of certainty in answering the question about whether he is sure, from intelligence he has seen, that Hamas will take over the West Bank when Abbas dies.“Without question,” he tells the Post. “The information that you see as a prosecutor, both for the background for administrative detention... in general and specific indictments we have put in over the time, shows that Hamas has never stopped with its aspirations to take over the West Bank... even if it requires violent means.”Asked to expound on a concrete Hamas take-over plan, he says: “One of the indictments we filed already in 2014 related to a plan by Salah Aruri, a very senior Hamas member, who sent his proxy to Judea and Samaria in order to recreate the military wing of Hamas, with its stated underlying principle that the goal was to oust the Fatah-led PLO and to retake the control which they had been elected by the people to assume.”Pressed if he really believed this could work, he responds: “The tremendous support Hamas has within the Palestinian people, not necessarily for identification with terrorist ideals, but possibly just for the fact that they are sick and tired of the corruption of the Fatah-led PLO, firstly lends itself to the assumption that Hamas will be democratically elected....Even if it’s not democratically elected, Hamas is a terrorist organization which will use all means, even violent means, in order to achieve its goals. And, therefore, I believe that the days of a Fatah-led Palestinian Authority are very limited.”Hirsch’s pessimism about negotiating with the Fatah-led West Bank Palestinians, the fact that he resides in the settlement of Efrat and the fact that many Palestinian lawyers went on strike against him and the IDF’s West Bank courts, saying he was imposing a new and unfairly severe punishment policy, might mark him as a right-winger. Yet his views appear to be more nuanced.Asked if he believes in the possibility of peace with Arabs, such as supporting the peace treaty with Egypt, he says he does.“I think the peace treaty in and of itself is a great thing,” he explains. “When you can achieve peace between two peoples and be certain to a great extent that this peace will be respected, then peace should definitely be an objective. [But] I don’t think that is the case with the Palestinians.”Pressed as to whether it was worth withdrawing from the entire Sinai Peninsula to obtain peace with Egypt – a question that often divides those who are for and against the “land for peace” formula, he responds: “I think without question yes.... The Sinai was never historically part of the Land of Israel. The claim of the Jewish people is not to land which wasn’t ours to start with. Therefore, the Sinai was part of Egyptian territory and was taken in a war started by the Egyptians, but there was no problem in giving it back to them.”Pressed further about “land for peace” – in particular regarding the Palestinians and Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, which many on the Right still consider a mistake, Hirsch calls it a “very complex” issue.“The fact that from 1967 to 2004, only 8,000 Jews had moved to the Gaza Strip, as opposed to more than a million Palestinians who lived in that same area, in itself expressed the connection of the Jewish people to the area. That is not the case with the West Bank. In the West Bank, there are hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers.”Asked whether his legalistic phraseology meant that the small number of Jews in Gaza showed a weaker Jewish connection, he responds: “Without question, yes. The fact that only 8,000 people moved there in a period... of more than 30 years definitely limited the connection of the Jewish people to that area.”Questioned further about whether he had any interest in re-taking Gaza, he responds without missing a beat. “None whatsoever.”RETURNING TO the issue of peace negotiations with a Fatah-led West Bank, the Post asked Hirsch whether he thought there could be a future Palestinian leader whose views were moderate enough for negotiations if a Hamas takeover does not take place.“Were there a genuine leader, for example, Salam Fayyad, who is more interested in setting up state institutions on a regular, proper basis, this would be much more difficult for Israel to deal with,” he answers. “In the meantime, this hasn’t happened.”Pressed to clarify whether he meant he would talk peace with someone moderate like Fayyad, Hirsch responds: “I think someone who genuinely believed in peace and didn’t believe in attacking the Israeli population and attacking the Israeli state – I think that would definitely be someone who could be a peace partner.”This article is the second of a series on the IDF West Bank Courts which will also be featured in Yonah Bob’s upcoming book on the subject focusing on the stories of two major figures each from the Israeli and Palestinian side, including Maurice Hirsch and Gaby Lasky.
Interview with outgoing chief West Bank prosecutor Maurice Hirsch. Credit: Eli Ben Zeev