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3 Israelis Convicted in Plot to Kill Arab Pupils

The trio of militant settlers left a trailer packed with explosives outside a girls school.

September 18, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Three Israelis who plotted to blow up a trailer packed with explosives outside a Palestinian girls school were convicted Wednesday of attempted murder in a case that shed some light on the shadowy world of suspected Jewish militants.

The three men were arrested in April 2002 after two of them parked the trailer outside the East Jerusalem campus at night and fled when a police patrol showed up. Inside the trailer, officers found a bomb rigged to go off several hours later, when hundreds of girls would be assembling in the schoolyard before the morning bell.

After nearly a yearlong trial, a Jerusalem court convicted Yarden Morag, Shlomo Dvir and Ofer Gamliel of attempted murder and illegal possession of arms. The three will be sentenced later.

In a country scarred by violent Islamic extremism, the case drew attention to its mirror image: a suspected network of fanatical Jewish settlers who advocate attacks against Arabs.

The number of such radicals is believed to be small. But police accuse them of planning attacks that have killed at least seven Palestinians and injured 30 others, including young children wounded by bombs planted in playgrounds.

The three convicted men belonged to a cell dubbed the Bat Ayin ring, named after the Jewish settlement where they lived, near the West Bank city of Hebron. Two alleged associates are still on trial. Together, the five men are the first Jewish militants to be indicted on such a charge during the nearly 3-year-old Palestinian uprising.

The convictions came on the heels of the arrests of other suspected members of a loose-knit Jewish militant underground. At least two remain in custody. All come from the Hebron area, home to some of the more extreme adherents of the religious settler movement.

The attempted bombing at the school was foiled by a fortuitous accident. Although the Israeli secret service monitors potentially violent extremists, officials said afterward that they had no foreknowledge of the plot, which the Bat Ayin ring hatched in February 2002.

According to Israeli media accounts of the indictment, the group discussed and reconnoitered various targets before fixing on the girls school in At Tur, a neighborhood in primarily Arab East Jerusalem. About 1,000 girls attend the school.

Before dawn on April 29, 2002, Morag and Dvir drove the Bat Ayin settlement's security Jeep into Jerusalem, a trailer of lethal cargo in tow. They unhitched the trailer in front of the school, chained and padlocked it to a post and slashed its tires to prevent it from being moved. Inside they had packed dynamite, two large canisters of gas, two 66- gallon barrels of diesel fuel mixed with gasoline and nearly 8 pounds of metal nuts and bolts as shrapnel.

When a police cruiser passed by, the two men hurried off, arousing suspicion. The officers gave chase and caught the pair. Police peeked inside the trailer and summoned sappers to defuse the time bomb, which the indictment said "could have killed many people."

Gamliel was arrested afterward for his part in planning the attack. He had backed out of accompanying his friends to Jerusalem, but had shown Morag and Dvir how to operate the detonator.

Lawyers for the men argued that their clients had not intended for the bomb to go off. Instead, the event was supposed to be a media stunt as a warning to Palestinian terrorists. Dvir and Morag planned to call police later and tell them about the trailer before it blew up, the attorneys said.

But the court scoffed at those arguments. In finding the three men guilty, it declared that there was no way such a massive and carefully rigged device could have been only for show.

After their conviction, the men admitted as much. They expressed regret for their actions, but Dvir shrugged off the prospect of prison time.

"The Jewish people have survived Auschwitz and Siberia," he told reporters. "It is better to sit in prison than be blown up in a cafe."

Authorities say that the Bat Ayin ring was motivated by a desire to avenge Palestinian attacks on Israelis. More than 800 Israelis have been killed in such incidents in the conflict, which has claimed the lives of more than 2,500 Palestinians.

Just a month before the foiled attack, a bomb exploded at another Arab school in East Jerusalem, wounding a teacher and several students.

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