Since 1988 Kach has been barred from contesting elections for the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but this is the first time in more than 40 years that Israel has outlawed a Jewish organisation on the grounds that it is terrorist and therefore a threat to state security. The last time was when the Stern group, led by a future prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, was banned after the killing in 1948 of the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte.
The decision to ban Kach was taken unanimously at the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting yesterday. 'Any organisation carrying the goals of those organisations which includes the establishment of a theocracy in the biblical land of Israel (Eretz Israel) and the violent expulsion of Arabs from that land will be considered as terrorist,' a cabinet statement said.
The move comes a few days before the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, departs for the United States. It could go a long way towards bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. 'This is a positive development towards redressing the basic injustice in the Israeli judicial system,' said Hanan Ashrawi, the former spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation at the peace talks. The Palestinians suspended all negotiations with Israel following the Hebron incident and have demanded some form of international presence to protect their population against militant settlers. And they have asked for the dismantlement of some of the more extreme settlements.
The Israeli move seems motivated by political considerations more than fears about Israel's security. In the past, Israeli courts and the army have shown Kach the greatest leniency. For the Palestinians, Kach is only the most extreme expression of a settler movement which they - and most of the international community - consider illegal. Successive Israeli governments have allowed, indeed encouraged, Jewish settlement on land which was never under Israeli sovereignty, thus storing up enormous problems in any future arrangement. Those problems can no longer be deferred.
For years Israeli governments, of different hues, have suppressed the expression of Palestinian nationalist sentiment by making membership of any PLO faction a criminal offence. Only in the past years has association with the PLO been decriminalised. Now the same laws have been invoked to ban Kach.
The Israeli security services have been assiduous over the years in tracking down Palestinian activists. They have made a start, in looking at the enemy within, by placing four Kach activists in what is termed in a legalistic euphemism 'administrative detention' - detention without charge or trial for six months, extendable. They could now be sentenced for up to 20 years imprisonment for membership of a banned organisation. It is unlikely that many of Kach's few hundred members will be so treated. And it is likely that they will be re-organised under a different name.