Israel probes '80 bombings in West Bank

Two Jewish settlers from the occupied West Bank have been charged with destroying ''evidence'' that may be connected to unsolved car bombings that wounded two Palestinian West Bank mayors in June 1980.

With Jewish settlement on the West Bank now a serious bone of contention between Israel and the United States, the case, involving two longtime members of the militant settler group Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) from the urban Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron, could become an embarrassment to the Israeli government. It could also cause a domestic political uproar, should it lead to evidence that Jewish settlers planted the car bombs as Israeli newspapers hinted at the time.

Zeev Friedman, a member of Kiryat Arba's local council, and Moshe Rosenthal, the town's security officer, were arrested a month ago and held briefly, some six months after an electrician placing new lines in the local council building brought them a bomb he found hidden in a cavity in the wall.

The two men allegedly decided not to turn the sophisticated device over to police or the security services. It is alleged that they noticed its explosives were of Israeli armed services manufacture and that it was wrapped in Hebrew newspapers issued on the same day in 1980 on which car bombs exploded maiming Nablus Mayor Bassam Shaka and Ramallah Mayor Karim Khalef. Another bomb intended for Bireh Mayor Ibrahim Tawil exploded and blinded an Israeli soldier who had been called to defuse it. Several Hebron Arab residents were also wounded by an explosive device left in the city's marketplace.

According to the charge sheet in Jerusalem District Court, the two Kiryat Arba men felt that the bomb might have been prepared by Jews and might be connected to the 1980 car bomb attacks. They therefore allegedly dismantled and destroyed it so it could not serve as evidence. The two men, along with two other Kiryat Arba residents arrested at the same time but apparently not charged , were released on $166 bail each after reportedly signing an agreement not to talk publicly about the case.

The car bombings occurred one month after six Jewish settlers from Kiryat Arba were murdered by Palestinian gunmen in downtown Hebron. There has been a history of tension between some residents of Kiryat Arba, a Jewish town of 4,000 situated next to 50,000 Arab residents of neighboring Hebron. Hebron is considered a holy city by both Jews and Arabs. Kiryat Arba is a center for Gush Emunim, which has spearheaded Jewish settlement on the West Bank, and for the ultra-right Kach group, which advocates expulsion of all Arabs from the West Bank.

The Arab mayors of Hebron and neighboring Halhul were deported to Lebanon the day after the Hebron killings, in what many observers interpreted then as an attempt to appease angry Kiryat Arba settlers. However, many settlers continued to speak of revenge.

The Palestinian gunmen were later caught and are serving jail sentences. But the car bombers were never apprehended. At the time, Israeli West Bank military authorities said the bombs might have been planted by Arab terrorists. But there were repeated hints in the Israeli news media that the bombs had been planted by Jewish settlers. According to the Israeli press, members of Kiryat Arba and other Jewish settlements were questioned at the time.

However, Zeev Schiff, one of Israel's most respected military correspondents, wrote at the time in the daily, Haaretz, that it would be politically impossible for the government to arrest and convict the guilty parties. He reasoned that to collect evidence the Israeli military and security services would have to interrogate so many hostile Gush Emunim settlers as to create a politically intolerable situation for a government that included numerous Gush Emunim supporters.

Both of the injured mayors, considered radicals by the Israeli government, were deposed from their posts early in 1982 and restricted in their movements.

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