Israeli debate: should settlers be pardoned?

For Israelis, the conviction here last week of 15 Jews for committing terrorist acts against Arabs is hardly the last word in the case. Jewish settlers of the Israeli-occupied West Bank have vowed to seek early pardons for the men -- the first Israeli Jews to be convicted of being part of a terrorist group.

``The pressure will mount,'' says an Israeli journalist. ``The settlers already have coordinated their efforts for release. They are lobbying Knesset members and journalists, running cartoons and editorials.''

Opinion in Israel is sharply divided between those who say an early pardon would be an act of justice and those who say it would undermine the judicial system.

Israel Harel, chairman of the Council of Settlements in Judea and Samaria, says the settlers should be pardoned soon. ``After all,'' he argues, ``they are not criminals. They were wrong, but on a nationalistic basis.''(Israelis refer to the West Bank as ``Judea and Samaria.'')

Still, Mr. Harel's council -- the umbrella political organization that represents all 102 Jewish settlements in the West Bank -- believes that the acts committed by the convicted men actually hurt the settlement movement.

The convictions, he said, ``are going to undercut our efforts to integrate Judea and Samaria into the state of Israel psychologically and physically. People will say, `That's the Wild West out there.' ''

Lawyers representing the convicted men and members of their families insist that the proper label is ``patriot'' not ``terrorist.'' For supporters of the convicted men, their sentencing, which should take place later this week, is little more than a formality. Three of the men were dealt automatic life sentences for murder; others who plea bargained are already serving jail terms.

The settlers fault the panel of judges of the Jerusalem District Court for refusing to consider the ``atmosphere'' on the West Bank in deciding guilt or innocence. Some 50,000 Israeli settlers live in scattered, heavily guarded communities on the West Bank. They are surrounded by 750,000 Palestinians who have lived under occupation since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The settlers have argued that it was the government's failure to protect them from attacks by Arabs that drove some of their members to vigilante acts. The convicted men had shot and killed students at an Islamic college, had planted explosives in mosques and on buses, and had plotted to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the third holiest Muslim shrine.

Members and observers of the Israeli judicial system, on the other hand, say that an early release would severely undermine the judiciary.

``I and the people I consort with are all of the opinion that these criminals should sit in prison for a long time,'' says Haim Cohen, a retired justice of the Israeli Supreme Court and the nation's first attorney general.

An early pardon, Justice Cohen says, ``would prove again that the rule of law stands in constant jeopardy from the politicians.''

Cohen's views are shared by Leslie Sebba, a professor of criminology at Hebrew University.

``If there are outright releases quickly, it will create an enormous furor in the legal system,'' Dr. Sebba predicts. ``Up to the end of the conviction, and I expect also, the sentencing, it has been a credible performance of the legal system.'' An immediate pardon, Sebba said, ``would make a farce of the last 14 months.''

The settlers have powerful support among members of the Knesset, or parliament, and from members of the coalition government, including Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. The day after the convictions were handed down, Mr. Shamir vowed to work for their early release. He has described them as ``boys who erred.''

Shamir's statements of support for the convicted men have been criticized by members of the legal system and in the press as interference with the judicial process.

``It was not just inappropriate. It was a crime. He should be sent to prison,'' Justice Cohen said flatly.

Last month, Minister of Justice Moshe Nissim imposed a ban, which is still in effect, on demonstrations for or against the settlers.

The ban was issued after the government released 1,150 Palestinians, some convicted of murder, produced a public outcry demanding the immediate release of the Jewish defendants.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said Sunday that the ban against demonstrations would remain in effect until after the 15 men are sentenced. Should they appeal their convictions, the spokesman said, the ban would remain in effect until after the appeal. The controversial ban was imposed, according to the spokesman, to guard against public pressure on the judges.

The man who cannot be shielded from pressure, once the judicial process is completed, is Israeli President Chaim Herzog. President Herzog's role is a largely ceremonial one. Under the Israeli government system, however, only the president can grant pardons or respond to a prisoner's plea to reduce his sentence.

Cohen points out that no person convicted of murder within Israel has ever served the whole of the mandatory life sentence. Commonly, the president considers a reduction of sentencing for a murderer after he has served seven years, according to Cohen.

``The difference between this case and other cases is that I would be very surprised if these people themselves were to ask for clemency,'' Cohen said.

``Instead, the requests will come from political quarters. That is highly unusual and also inappropriate. I hope that the president will be strong enough to withstand all these pressures.''

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