Shai Gal

How an Israeli minister found himself meeting members of a group plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock

A documentary-maker touring the UK next week recounts his experiences making 'Jewish Underground', a film about the terror group

May 03, 2019 11:12

In March 2013, Yaakov Peri, former head of Israel’s Security Agency the Shin Bet, was appointed as Israel’s Minister of Science. One morning, he had a meeting with the Agriculture Minister, Uri Ariel. When he entered, Peri noticed another man standing behind the minister.

“This is my senior political adviser” said Ariel of the man. He was familiar to Peri, though he couldn’t remember where from.

The adviser held out his hand and smiled: “I’m Nathanson. We last met 30 years ago, in the detention cell in Jerusalem. Nathanson, from the Jewish Underground”.

Peri was lost for words.

In May 1980, Peri was the commander of the Jerusalem district in the Shin Bet. Early one morning, the phone rang at his home: “We’re not sure what’s happening, but there’s been a chain of car explosions in Palestinian cities in the West Bank.”

These explosions were a complete surprise for the intelligence service.

Two devices went off in the cars of Palestinian mayors, who lost their legs, while an IDF bomb disposal expert lost his eyesight trying to dismantle a third.

One of these bombs had been placed that night by Nathanson.

The Jewish Underground had 27 members, making it the largest and most organised terrorist group of right-wing settlers.

Among them were a fighter pilot, a senior reserve officer, the deputy head of a local council, a journalist and a rabbi.

They did not come from the margins of society.

It took the Shin Bet four years to put their hands on the Underground’s members and expose the plan they had been working on: to blow up the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount, the most volatile, holy place in the Middle East.

They broke into an IDF base and stole almost a thousand kilos of military-grade explosives.

If they had been successful in carrying out their plan, the whole area would have been a firestorm. It would have also been a declaration of war on the Muslim world.

When the members of the Underground were arrested, the entire State of Israel was shaken. Condemnations came from the right as well as the left. But no one predicted what would happen next.

When I began working on a documentary film about this affair, I came across walls of suspicion, and reams of materials and documents that were shelved.

But mainly, I did not realise the magnitude of the fault line in Israeli society that was caused by these events. I did not yet connect the dots between the history — which was only the basis of this story — to contemporary Israel.

The members of the Underground were convicted and sent to prison.

Three of them, who were convicted of murder, were sentenced to life imprisonment. But then a massive public campaign to release them was launched and in less than seven years they were all out of jail.

The rabbis who were suspected of authorising the attacks were never charged.

Together with the changes in the political landscape in Israel and the establishment of the right-wing in government, some of the members of Jewish Underground returned to the centere of public life and filled key positions in the halls of power, including the Prime Minister’s office.

This did not happen overnight: it was a slow process in which ideas that were once marginal made their way into the political mainstream.

That is not exclusive to Israel.

The process is not noticeable at first; it happens gradually, behind the scenes, until one day you meet a man who looks familiar, who you last faced in a detention centre.

But now, he smiles at you over the shoulder of a government minister.

Shai Gal is the director and creator of the film “The Jewish Underground”. The film’s screening is sponsored by Yachad and will take place in London on May 9 as part of Seret Festival.

May 03, 2019 11:12

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