Shin Bet fights to save its skin

Assassination inquiry: How secret service failed to follow up information on plot to kill Rabin
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The Independent Online


"Look at that cool little Yemenite: small but a bastard. He plans to shoot Rabin."

Shlomo Halevy, a 25-year-old student and army reservist, claimed that he heard this fragment of conversation in a lavatory in the washroom of Tel Aviv Central Bus Station just after midnight on 25 June this year.

Mr Halevy heard a second man, not realising he was being overheard, ask if the Yemeni had obtained a pistol. He was told by his companion that he had the gun and had also been twice to the synagogue to confess. The two men then discussed the likelihood of the assassination being successful.

Later the same day Mr Halevy, who was working as a reservist in the Central Command of the Israeli army, told his commanding officer about a plan to murder the prime minister. He was then interrogated by the Jerusalem police, to whom he told the same story.

His police interrogator noted that he was "a serious individual ... He is a student and intelligent." He was only questioned once and the police and the Shin Bet security service failed to find the small religious Israeli of Yemeni extraction who was planning to kill Yitzhak Rabin with a pistol.

Imagine the horror in the Shin Bet, responsible for guarding Rabin, on the night of 4 November when they realised that a person answering exactly to the description given by Mr Halevy four months earlier had just killed the prime minister.

Not only had the 20 Shin Bet guards let Yigal Amir fire his pistol 16 inches from Rabin's chest but the intelligence agency had failed to follow up the accurate information given to them about the assassination plot.

Mr Halevy was immediately arrested and repeated that he knew about Mr Amir's plans but his explanation of how he knew about them changed drastically. He had first got to know Mr Amir two years ago at Bar-Ilan University law school. Mildly left-wing himself, Mr Halevy had a girlfriend who was an activist in a right-wing student group at Bar-Ilan and it was she who told him about Mr Amir and his plans.

He made up the story about hearing the information at the bus station - and concealed the name of Mr Amir - in order to protect her.

All this information is known because the Shin Bet is desperately trying to defend itself against accusations of gross negligence.

At the end of last week the Yediot Aharanot newspaper published a report that the Shin Bet had received a detailed warning ahead of the assassination but had chosen to ignore it.

On Sunday morning the head of the organisation took the unprecedented decision to send a fax to Israeli army radio giving the Shin Bet's version of events, including the original police report of its interrogation of Mr Halevy on 25 June.

The aim is to show that the Shin Bet did not have the name of the potential assassin, but the explanation may not get them off the hook.

Mr Halevy was interrogated only once. If he had reported a similar conversation among Palestinians in east Jerusalem bus station would the Shin Bet have shown so little interest? Shin Bet officials will find it difficult to escape the suggestion that if they had asked a few more questions, Mr Halevy might have disgorged the identity of the potential assassin.

Like the FBI under J Edgar Hoover, the Shin Bet has always had a talent for self-promotion but over the last year it has been hit by a series of scandals.

In April this year Abdel Samed Hrizat, a Hamas suspect from Hebron, was beaten to death when under interrogation by Shin Bet agents in his cell in Jerusalem. In another scandal an associate of Aryeh Deri, Israeli political kingmaker and former interior minister, who is on trial for corruption, said he knew all about police tapping of his phone through friends in the Shin Bet. Former Shin Bet officers were also heavily involved in the bugging of 200 media, business and political figures by an Israeli newspaper earlier this year.

In Israel the shock of the assassination of Rabin overshadowed the pull- out of Israeli forces from the northern West Bank town of Jenin early yesterday. After 28 years of occupation, Palestinians danced and shouted "God is Great" as the last 15 Israeli jeeps drove out of the military headquarters under PLO escort. Hundreds of Palestinians, some firing guns and others on horseback, rushed in to replace them.

It was the first transfer of a West Bank city since Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman, signed a deal in Washington on 28 September to expand Palestinian self-rule. Residents of Jenin, which has 40,000 people, joined hands and danced in the courtyard of the military headquarters.

About 550 Palestinian policemen arrived during the day from Jericho, the only town on the West Bank to get autonomy last year.