Spying on Jews challenges Israel's secret service

KIRYAT ARBA, West Bank (Reuters) - They may falsely say your comrades gave confessions implicating you. They may bug your cell. They may deprive you of sleep, force you to sit in contorted postures for hours, even blindfold and beat you.

Such warnings about Israeli interrogators from the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service are usually sounded among jailed Palestinians. But this time, they appear in a Hebrew-language pamphlet written for Jewish settlers and their sympathizers.

With friction building in the occupied West Bank over the prospect -- albeit distant -- of a Palestinian state, the Shin Bet is quietly knuckling down on Jews who might turn to violence to try to wreck any future peace accord. Militant settler leaders report increased efforts by the Shin Bet’s Division for Countering State Subversion, also known as the “Jewish Division,” to garner tip-offs about possible plots to kill Arabs or assassinate an Israeli government figure.

“There’s a real sense of Shin Bet-phobia nowadays,” said Noam Federman, the pamphlet’s author and a firebrand settler from Kiryat Arba, near the West Bank town of Hebron.

Yet given a recent spree of settler rampages in the West Bank, doubts have been raised in Israel over whether the Shin Bet, criticized internationally for a two-fisted approach to Arab suspects, tends to treat Jews with kid gloves.

“Having won the fight against Palestinian terror, the Shin Bet is losing to the far-right,” opined Israel’s Maariv daily.

Israeli officials deny the Shin Bet discriminates on the basis of race when targeting potential troublemakers.

According to settlers and Shin Bet veterans, pressure tactics familiar to Palestinians -- from bribery to ruses to interrogation methods that civil liberties groups decry as torture -- are all available for use against Jewish detainees.

But few dispute that Jews are less likely to receive rough treatment, if only because they enjoy sovereign Israeli rights such as access to a lawyer within 48 hours of detention. By contrast, Palestinians can be more readily kept incommunicado for long periods, as the West Bank is under Israeli martial law.

“The Jew feels at home. He thinks he has more rights. He thinks he can run to the Supreme Court,” a recently retired Shin Bet chief interrogator told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

“So, statistically, the moment you apply physical pressure on Jews, they get offended and clam up -- not like Arabs.”


Menachem Landow, a former Jewish Division head, said Shin Bet officers -- many of them religious Jews conversant with ultranationalist claims to biblical West Bank land -- prefer to stem settler threats through dialogue rather than crackdowns.

“The working assumption with Jews is that they’re friendly unless proven otherwise, while Arabs are hostile unless proven otherwise. There’s no 100 percent formula here,” he said.

“You’d be amazed how many radical settlers are happy to give us information, on the understanding that they will continue their activism but help the state prevent it turning violent.”

Recent history suggests the Shin Bet’s methods could change with circumstances. The Jewish Division, having devoted decades to tracking communist groups with possible Soviet links, shifted focus to ultranationalists in the 1980s, uncovering a settler plot to bomb Palestinian politicians and a Jerusalem mosque.

The 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a rightist zealot prompted a major anti-settler dragnet, though the Shin Bet was rebuked by a state inquiry for its use of an “agent provocateur” who set up a bogus nationalist underground.

For the Shin Bet, the conflict could also get more personal.

Settlers cast out members of their communities deemed to be Jewish Division spies, and are growing more proactive. On Monday, a protest rally was held outside the home of the Jewish Division head, though its location was meant to be secret.

“We live in a small country, and they should be aware that just like they can find us, we can find them,” Federman said.

Editing by Samia Nakhoul