Court stops Sharon giving job to agent who beat guerrillas to death

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Israel's Supreme Court blocked the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, yesterday from giving a senior security job to a former Shin Bet agent who has admitted beating to death two Palestinian guerrillas.

Answering a petition from the left-wing party Meretz the court ruled that ex-agent Ehud Yatom could not take up Mr Sharon's job offer as head of a counter-terrorism team until it had reviewed the case in detail.

Five years ago, on his retirement from Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service, Mr Yatom told an Israeli newspaper that he killed the two Palestinians by beating their skulls with a rock in April 1984.

The killings, which became known as the "Bus 300" scandal, happened after four Palestinian gunmen hijacked a bus, threatening to kill the passengers. Two of the guerrillas, and one passenger, were killed in a rescue raid by Israeli commandos, and the other two were arrested by Shin Bet agents.

When it emerged that the captured Palestinians had been beaten to death in custody, there was a public outcry which shook Israel's internal security establishment to its foundations. Four Shin Bet officials resigned. In 1996, they and seven others ­ including Mr Yatom ­ were pardoned by Israeli president Haim Herzog.

This is not the first time the Bus 300 affair has returned to haunt those involved. Human rights groups protested loudly when Mr Yatom was appointed to a counter-terrorism council in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1992, Yossi Ginossar, the deputy head of Shin Bet in 1984 who was among those who resigned over the affair, was barred by the Supreme Court from taking the post of the director-general of Israel's housing ministry. He later went on to work unofficially as Ehud Barak's private conduit with Yasser Arafat.

Yesterday's court decision was welcomed by B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights group. A spokesman said Mr Yatom "could not possibly be part of the Israeli civil service."

Mr Sharon was facing a legal challenge yesterday from another quarter, also involving a past scandal. For the first time since he was forced to resign as Defence Minister over the Sabra and Shatilla massacres, Mr Sharon was yesterday back in charge of the Defence Ministry, standing in for his minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who is at the Paris Air Show. An Israeli Arab parliamentarian, Ahmed Tibi, has called on the government's legal adviser to bar Mr Sharon from standing in, on the grounds that the 1983 Kahan Commission into the massacre recommended he resign from the post.

* Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin, has accused the BBC of tricking him into giving an interview for a Panorama documentary examining whether the Israeli Prime Minister should be tried as a war criminal over the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.

Advance publicity about the film, by Fergal Keane ­ a BBC correspondent and columnist for The Independent ­ has infuriated the Israeli government, whose officials have accused the BBC of an "anti-Israeli bias bordering on anti-Semitism".