Jerusalem — Three Jewish settlers were convicted yesterday of murdering Islamic University students on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The murder convictions were the stiffest verdicts handed down by a panel of three judges who also found 12 other settlers guilty of crimes ranging from possession of firearms to manslaughter and conspiracy.
Israeli public opinion has been deeply divided over the 14-month trial of more than two-dozen Jewish settlers. Some viewed the men as misguided patriots, while others felt their actions threatened the foundations of the Jewish state.
It is expected that supporters of the so-called Jewish terrorist underground will push hard now for pardons of the convicted men.
The issue is explosive enough, some observers say, to threaten the always-shaky coalition government headed by Labor Party leader, Shimon Peres. Many ministers of the opposition Likud bloc, who compose half of the government, have expressed support for freeing the convicted men.
After the verdicts were handed down, leaders of the settlement movement vowed they would seek a pardon which can only be granted by the President, Chaim Herzog.
Under Israeli law, the mandatory sentence for murder is life imprisonment. Earlier another 10 suspects had plea-bargained and received sentences of as many as 10 years in prison. One of the 10 is already free. Punishment for the other crimes varies from two to 20 years in prison.
The convictions stem from a series of attacks that began in 1980 on West Bank Arabs. Some of those convicted also were found guilty of planning to blow up Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
After Israel exchanged 1,150 Palestinian prisoners in May for three Israeli soldiers, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir and several other politicians called for the release of the suspects in the so-called Jewish terrorist underground case.
Wives of the suspects went on a hunger strike, and their supporters organized mass demonstrations outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
Mr. Shamir's spokesman said Wednesday that the foreign minister would make no further comment on the case until the men are sentenced. Sentencing is expected to take place Sunday.
Israeli law says that President Herzog has the power to pardon criminals on a case-by-case basis. Mr. Herzog is expected to come under enormous pressure from the public and from members of the Knesset who sympathize with the convicted men.
``Murder is murder. It is written that `Thou shalt not kill,' '' says Eliakim Haetzni, a lawyer and leader of the Kiryat Arba settlement on the West Bank.
``There is only one situation in which a state can convert sentences like this -- if there is not equal justice handed down. If the Israeli state had not released hundreds of Arab murderers, we would not have said a word,'' he says. ``But we don't want Israel to commit a second sin by letting Arab murderers go free and Jewish murderers have to spend their lives in jail.''
Mr. Haetzni says he has already lobbied politicians on behalf of the convicted men and would continue to do so. He is hopeful that they would all soon go free.
Darwish Nasser, an East Jerusalem lawyer who monitored the trial for two former West Bank mayors who had been victims of bombing attacks in 1980, said he was disappointed with some of the verdicts handed down.
In 1980, explosives planted in the cars of the then-mayors of Nablus and Ramallah severely wounded both men. Other explosives intended for the then-mayor of Al-Bireh, a politician in Bethlehem, and an Arab leader in Jerusalem were discovered before they could go off.
Originally, several of the Jewish underground suspects were charged with attempting to murder the mayors. But the judges reduced the charge to attempting to cause grievous harm. Nine men were convicted in connection with the attacks on the mayors.
``I was shocked when I heard that the charge had been reduced,'' said Mr. Nasser. ``They [the settlers] wanted to kill the mayors.''
However, more important than the verdicts, Nasser said, would be the sentencing. He predicted that the sentences would be more lenient than those meted out by military courts on the West Bank to Arabs who have been convicted of terrorist attacks.
``I'm sure the [defendants'] lawyers will call witnesses to show what good characters they have and how helpful to the state they have been,'' he said.
Menahem Livni, described in the Israeli press as the leader of the so-called undergound, was found guilty of 12 counts in five attacks. Mr. Livni, who lived in a Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab Hebron on the West Bank, was elected chairman of the Kiryat Arba municipal council in 1977. He was found guilty of murder and attempted murder in the 1983 attack on the Hebron Islamic College.
Shaul Nir and Uziah Sharabaf also were found guilty of murder and attempted murder in the attack. Mr. Sharabaf is the son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, the founder of the Hebron settlement.
Three students were killed and 33 were wounded in the attack on the college, which occurred after a Jewish settler was stabbed to death by Arabs in Hebron.
Many West Bank settlers have condemned the attacks, but others said they occurred only because the Israeli government has failed to provide enough security for settlers. Throughout the trial, debate raged in Israel over the case.
Public sympathy for the underground, however, rose sharply in the wake of the release of the Palestinian prisoners. Hundreds of the Palestinians were allowed to return to their homes on the West Bank, over the virulent protests of settlers. Since the release, settlers have kept up a harassment campaign aimed at driving the Palestinians from the West Bank.