JERUSALEM — Israeli President Chaim Herzog on Sunday pardoned seven more Shin Bet security agents involved in the beating deaths of two captured Palestinian bus hijackers in 1984.
Acknowledging the "difficult moral and ethical aspects" of what he termed "this exceptional case," Herzog nevertheless defended his action as being in the interests of state security and the public good. He said it was a "direct and logical extension" of the pardons that he granted June 25 to former Shin Bet chief Avraham Shalom and three of Shalom's top aides involved in the same affair.
The Israeli Supreme Court upheld the earlier pardons in a controversial 2-1 decision Aug. 6, and the seven lower-level Shin Bet agents applied for pardons four days later.
In the wake of the latest pardons as well as the expiration over the weekend of the deadline for appealing the Aug. 6 decision to a larger Supreme Court panel, a special police team investigating the hijackers' deaths is expected to begin questioning the pardoned Shin Bet officials this week.
Atty. Gen. Yosef Harish initiated the police probe to determine if any top Israeli political figure of that time had ordered the Shin Bet men to kill the two prisoners. David Kraus, inspector general of police, had agreed not to call as witnesses those Shin Bet figures already implicated in the affair until after the pardons issue had been cleared up.
The affair could be explosive politically because the man to whom Shalom reported directly at the time was then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, now foreign minister in Israel's coalition Cabinet. Shamir is scheduled to become prime minister again in mid-October under a rotation provision of the coalition accord between his Likud Bloc and Prime Minister Shimon Peres' Labor Alignment.
In addition, the beating deaths of the bus hijackers was the object of an elaborate cover-up over many months, during which Shin Bet officials tried to shift the blame for the deaths onto an army commander. Both Shamir and Peres were in charge at different times while the cover-up was going on.
Critics charge that by granting the pardons and blocking a full-fledged judicial inquiry into the affair, the Israeli leadership has insured itself against any serious political fallout from the affair, which arose from the April 13, 1984, hijacking of an Israeli commuter bus by four Palestinians.
Authorities originally said that all four hijackers were killed during an assault by Israeli counterterrorist forces that ended the hijacking. But photographs published later, in defiance of censorship, showed two of the hijackers being led to a nearby field, where it was subsequently disclosed that they were beaten to death.
An army general who led a paratroop unit that ended the hijacking became the target of two lower-level inquiries into the beating deaths, and he was cleared early this year.
Soon afterward, three senior Shin Bet officials approached then-Atty. Gen. Yitzhak Zamir, asserting that Shin Bet agents had killed the Palestinians on orders from Shalom and that Shalom and three of his senior aides had engineered a cover-up that attempted to shift the blame onto the army general.
Led to Cabinet Rift
The scandal broke into the open last spring when Zamir demanded that Shalom be prosecuted, a move that led to a Cabinet rift. Zamir was later replaced by Harish, but the new attorney general has also insisted that either the police or a formal judicial commission inquire into the incident.
Under an arrangement announced two months ago, Shalom resigned in return for presidential pardons for himself and three senior aides. The four, in their requests for clemency, admitted wrongdoing, although Shalom said that he had acted "with permission and on authority" of his superiors.
Shamir, to whom Shalom reported directly at the time, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
President Herzog said in June that he pardoned Shalom and his aides to end "the witch hunt surrounding this affair and to avert additional serious harm" to Shin Bet.
Seen as Security Matter
Herzog praised the service's work defending Israel against terrorism and added: "A situation was created where (Shin Bet) people would have had to face an investigation without the ability to defend themselves unless they disclosed security secrets of the gravest nature. In this situation I saw before me, first and foremost, the need to protect the good of the public and the security of the country."
On Sunday, Herzog said that it would be unfair to deny clemency to lower-level Shin Bet operatives after granting it to their superiors.
The seven newly pardoned agents have never been publicly identified here.