Published on Sunday, May 19, 2002 in the New York Times
Israel Arrests Settlers it Says Tried to Bomb Palestinians
by John Kifner
JERUSALEM — Israel's internal security agency, which usually searches for Palestinians deemed to be terrorists, now says it has uncovered a suspected Jewish network that apparently planned to bomb two or more Palestinian schools.
The tale, which has emerged this week as courts lifted publication bans, began late in April when police officers on routine patrol here witnessed the startling sight of two Jewish settlers in an Arab neighborhood on the Mount of Olives at 3 a.m.
The men were driving a security car from the Bat Ayin settlement, and had unhooked a trailer and placed it by the wall of a girls' school near the city's main Palestinian health center, the Makassed Hospital. When the police asked questions, they got a stammering, evasive story about a flat tire.
The police said they searched the vehicles and found two submachine guns in the car and a powerful bomb, made of Israeli Army-issued explosives, containers of oil and propane cooking-gas cylinders. A clock attached to the detonator was set for 7:35 a.m., when students would be arriving at school, the police said.
So far, six people have been taken into custody, including two of the best-known voices of the religious far right: Noam Federman, a leader of the outlawed Kach movement of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and Menashe Levenger, son of Rabbi Moshe Levenger, a founder of the Jewish settlement in Hebron. Two of the six arrested have already admitted involvement in a plot to bomb the girls' school, according to their lawyer.
"It was a miracle a terror attack was prevented next to the school," Judge Reuven Shmiya of Jerusalem Magistrate's Court said in lifting the publication ban on news of the arrests of Mr. Federman and Mr. Levinger as suspects. "There is no doubt that had the bombing taken place it would have caused great damage to the security of the state."
Investigators from the Shin Bet, the internal security service, said that Mr. Federman was "the brain behind this organization," according to accounts in Israeli newspapers.
Mr. Federman, usually voluble with reporters, was terse at a court hearing on Tuesday, saying only that Shin Bet was "persecuting" people who tried to support those already arrested. He was remanded for further questioning.
Mr. Levenger called the government charges "phony baloney."
The proceedings were enlivened when Mr. Levenger's sister, Kinneret Rosenthal, tried to block police cars carrying the defendants by driving wildly through the narrow streets of the Russian Compound, the czarist-era sector that now houses the police headquarters. She has been charged with running over two policemen and a horse.
The police also suspect — because of the similar methods and the use of army-issue explosives — that the same group might have been involved in an attempted bomb attack on an Arab boys' school in East Jerusalem six weeks ago. A teacher noticed the bomb, hidden near a tree, and the students were evacuated before it went off.
The Shin Bet chief, Avi Dichter, has been warning of the potential danger of a Jewish underground movement similar to a group whose members were arrested in the mid-1980's and were said by the police to have been planning to bomb buses and blow up the Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
Security officials said they had until now regarded Mr. Federman, who began his career in Kach at 14, as more mouth than muscle. Charges have been filed against him 45 times, though only 8 ended in convictions. His father was a hard-line nationalist arrested by the British during the League of Nations mandate and deported to Ethiopia, where he shared a cell with Yitzhak Shamir, then a member of the terrorist Stern Gang and decades later prime minister.
Most of the six detained so far come from Bat Ayin, a cluster of 13 trailer homes near Hebron that has attracted people known here as the "New Age" religious, a mix of newly observant Jews, Lubavitchers, and Bratslav Hasidim, followers of a rabbi who preached joy in Ukraine 200 years ago. Strict rules require men to grow beards, women to wear modest dress; in contrast to many settlements where menial labor is done by Arabs, there are no non-Jewish workers.
Those detained so far include Yarden Morag, 25, a father of four whose parents also live in the settlement; Shlomo Dvir, a yeshiva student who was convicted in the earlier plot to bomb the Dome of the Rock before receiving a presidential pardon, and Offer Gamliel, 42, a carpenter and former sapper, or explosives expert, in the army.
The sixth man detained was Yosef Ben Barach, described as a shepherd from Maon Farm, an illegal settlement disbanded under former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but reconstituted under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It is headed by Yehoshefat Tor, a charismatic former Israeli commando who was a mercenary soldier in Africa and Latin America.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company