The two-year plot to kill Rabin

Israel is discovering how a deadly mix of God, guns, and nationalism claimed the life of its leader. Patrick Cockburn reports from Jerusalem

A GROUP of religious Jews guided by militant rabbis hatched their plot to kill Yitzhak Rabin two years ago, immediately after he signed the agreement to withdraw from the West Bank, which they regard as land given to them by God. Three men were at the heart of the conspiracy - Yigal Amir, his brother Hagai, and Dror Adani - and they tried twice to assassinate Mr Rabin before they finally succeeded.

"They stockpiled a lot of weapons materiel," said Moshe Shahal, the Israeli Police Minister, for the first time spelling out the mechanics of the assassi- nation. "Some was made by Hagai Amir in order to plan attacks on Palestinians, but part of the cache was of different kinds of weapons that could be used to kill the Prime Minister."

The claim by Mr Shahal, a powerful and popular politician, is important because it appears to end the open dispute between the police and the Shin Bet security service over the existence of a conspiracy. Only hours before Mr Shahal spoke late on Friday, Shin Bet was letting it be known it thought Yigal Amir had acted alone. But Mr Shahal's statement is detailed enough to commit the government to the conspiracy theory. This may in turn lead to a confrontation with the religious right, to which the suspects all belong.

Mr Shahal said the plot had two levels: the murder of the Prime Minister, and attacks on Palestinians after Israeli troops had left the West Bank towns, over the next two months. Six suspects are under arrest, but not the rabbis whom he says gave their blessing to the assassination. The minister said some of the conspirators "were active on both levels and some only on one, planning or carrying out the murder of the Prime Minister".

Earlier in the week, police had dug up grenades, explosives, timing devices, and ammunition from the Amir home, where most of it was buried in the yard which Geula Amir, mother of Yigal and Hagai, used for a kindergarten. She said she knew nothing of her son's actions and disowned him, saying: "The affinity I have today for Yigal is only a biological one."

The cache of arms and the 20 dum-dum bullets Hagai made for Yigal's 9mm Beretta, which ensured that Mr Rabin did not survive, is the best evidence so far that there was a conspiracy. But, as with the assassination of President John F Kennedy in 1963, determining exactly who was behind the assassination - a single gunman or a group - is of great importance for the future of Israeli politics.

Leah Rabin, the Prime Minister's widow, accuses the main right-wing Likud party and its leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, of creating the atmosphere of violence in which her husband died. But the Amir brothers and the four other men under arrest all come from the religious, not the secular right. Yigal Amir's only attempt to disguise himself as he waited in the car park beside Mr Rabin's car last Saturday was to remove his kippa (skullcap). All the suspects come from religious families, entered the religious part of Israel's education system, and in four cases went to Bar-Ilan university, where they belonged to a Kolel, an intensely religious section.

Geula Amir said she could not understand how her quiet, scholarly son could have turned into a killer. Even if she had visited him at Yeshiva Yavneh, the seminary where he combined his military service with religious studies, near Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, it would not have been immediately obvious why he became an assassin. The placid little campus looks properly academic, apart from a military Jeep and soldiers carrying sub-machine- guns outside the office block, although this is not uncommon in Israel. Here, explains Rabbi Rivlin, the dean of studies, who knew and liked Yigal Amir during his five years at Yavneh, students spend at least three years studying the Talmud and more than 18 months in the army. Israeli society is all, to some degree, religious and nationalist, but here at Yavneh, and many other colleges, the extremes of both come together. Rabbi Rivlin, although shocked by what Yigal Amir did, says one has to bear in mind the deep differences between students and staff at Yavneh, and Mr Rabin.

The differences are to do with the Oslo accords of 1993 and the decision to pull out of the West Bank. At his remand hearing, Amir asked: "Haven't the Israeli people noticed that a Palestinian state is being established here?" But there is much more at issue here for extreme religious Jews than the surrender of part of the Land of Israel given by God to the Jews. The West Bank - Judea and Samaria - is also important for the extreme religious right because, after victory in the war in 1967, they see it, much as 17th-century Puritan settlers saw New England, as the testing- ground for a more theocratic society. Baruch Kimmerling of Hebrew University says they hoped "to build there a lifestyle pursued by holy communities and based on an educational system to constitute the hard core of the future Jewish religious state".

Mr Rabin, the Labour establishment, and Shin Bet never appreciated the explosive conse- quences of destroying this dream. Mr Rabin was contemptuous of the settlers, saying they did nothing for security and cost a lot of money. His own background was rigorously military. He showed no signs of understanding religous nationalists like those now under arrest for his murder, who saw the 1967 war, in which Mr Rabin was chief of staff, as a dispensation from God. Yigal Amir and his friends were not primarily settlers, But they spent much of their time among the more extreme of the 130,000 Israelis who live in the 136 settlements on the West Bank. Here there are a hard core who are armed and ideologically committed, like students in the Yeshivas and Kolels in Tel Aviv, who live in their own world, separate from that of most Israelis, which they see as beset by traitors and demons.

After the assassination Shin Bet, desperate to excuse its failure to prevent Yigal Amir firing his pistol from just 40cm away from Mr Rabin's chest, let it be known that it simply "didn't expect a Jew to kill a Jew". But a Labour leader pointed out that the religious right has a long tradition of political killings and violence against Palestinians. He said there was a thread stretching from the late 1970s, when they planted bombs in the cars of Palestinian mayors which killed one and blew the legs off another. Last year Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians as they prayed in a mosque in Hebron. A book in praise of him was found in Yigal Amir's bedroom.

Mr Rabin did not crack down. He saw the settlers as politically difficult to handle. After the Goldstein massacre, he refused to move extreme settlers from the centre of Hebron, although Israeli public opinion would probably have accepted it. They were a card against the PLO, and he probably underestimated them. Some were very mad indeed. Dov Lior, Chief Rabbi of Kiryat Arba, a settlement of 7,000 Jews overlooking Hebron, once ruled it was all right to use Arabs imprisoned for security offences for medical experiments.

The government had been tolerant of attacks by religious Jews on Palestinians. But Yigal Amir and his friends categorised all opponents as enemies of real Jews. About 100,000 Israelis had attended the peace rally whereMr Rabin was assassinated, but Yigal Amir said in court that "half were Arabs". For the student of Yavneh and Bar-Ilan, it was simple to turn executioner, because, under Jewish law, "as soon as a person turns his people and his land over to the enemy, he must be killed".

Neal Ascherson, page 20

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