Sunday, 3 November 2013

Sticking to his guns.

"No regrets". Hagay Amir

Hagay Amir spent over 16 years in prison for his part in the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin. Now, 18 years after the event and a free man, he reflects. There are no regrets, he tells Ori Golan in an exclusive interview.



Yitzchak Rabin
It was a murder that rocked the country and threatened to plunge it into civil war. November 4, 1995, Kings of Israel Square, Tel Aviv. Shortly after 9:30pm thousands of jubilant Israelis dispersed after attending a peace rally in support of the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO. When they arrived home and switched on their television, they were stunned to hear Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin's bureau chief, Eitan Haber, deliver a bomb shell to their screen: "The government of Israel announces in shock, in great sadness and in deep sorrow, the death of prime minister and minister of defense Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin, tonight in Tel Aviv."
The murder was the culmination of a coordinated hate campaign which had begun with the historic handshake between Rabin and Yasser Arafat two years previously. In the midst of an ongoing Palestinian terror crusade, and in a bid to derail the peace process, political parties from the far right mobilised Israel’s religious Zionists to delegitimise the government. The campaign was carefully planned and strategically executed, using violence, seditious graffiti and unabashed incitement.
And the primary target was Rabin.

In several forums he was declared a traitor and an enemy of the Jews – crimes which, according to some radical rabbis, were punishable by death. On one occasion four of them staged a religious ritual outside Rabin’s home, calling down a curse on him. Anti-government demonstrators waved placards carrying photoshopped posters of Rabin in SS uniform and a swastika armband, with captions reading “traitor” and “murderer”.

It was in this climate that Rabin met his death, by a fellow Jew.

The assassination left a nation in shock. How could this happen here, in a Jewish country, many Israelis asked themselves.
Two brothers were able to answer the question: Yigal and Hagay Amir. The assassin and his accomplice. They had planned and executed this premeditated murder with precision, intent and conviction.
Yigal’s part in the assassination was clear. At the end of the rally, as Rabin walked down to the parking lot adjacent to the square, Yigal leapt from the penumbra, aimed his Beretta 84F semi-automatic pistol at Rabin and fired three shot. Two of them pierced through Rabin.

The extent of Hagay’s knowledge of, and participation in, the planning of the slaying is less clear. However, he refashioned the tips of the bullets which his brother used to murder Rabin to form dum dum bullets which expand on impact to rip through flesh.

Yigal was apprehended at the scene and taken into interrogation. The following day Hagay was arrested.
Both men were tried and convicted. Hagay was handed down a 16-year sentence for complicity to murder. Yigal was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder and another six years for the attempted murder of Rabin’s body guard. A special law, passed by the Knesset in 2001, guarantees that he cannot be pardoned and denies him the possibility of parole.

Another accomplice, Dror Adani, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

Hagay does not trust journalists, or like them. Since his release from prison, in May last year, he has steadfastly refused to give interviews or cooperate with the media. He knows that he will not get a fair hearing.

It is undeniable that mainstream media have shown deep antipathy toward him and Yigal, as have most Israelis, chiefly because neither has ever expressed remorse or regret over their deed. Few can forget, or forgive, Yigal's contemptuous smile, chewing gum in court as the proceedings were taking place.

This does not mean that the media is not interested in them. Over the years both he and Yigal have been the subject of news reports and feature articles. In August 2004 Yigal made headlines when he managed to outwit the Israel Prison Service (IPS) and marry Larissa Trimbobler in a surreptitious proxy marriage which was later validated by a Rabbinical court. In October 2007, despite the IPS’s best efforts to torpedo their plan, the couple brought into the world a son.

Hagai Amir
with Yigal Amir's
son, Yinon
I meet Hagay at his home in the coastal city of Herzlia where he lives with his parents in an unassuming house with a front lawn. The interview was facilitated by a third party and required some to-ing and fro-ing, but when he finally agrees to the interview, he makes no preconditions and places no subject off-limit.

His mother greets me as she disappears behind the porch; his father walks slowly past us, an elderly man who has suffered a stroke. Hagay receives me with a handshake and leads me into the family’s living room where photos of rabbis adorn the walls and the shelves are stacked with holy books. We sit around a dinner table, at right angle to each other.

At 44, after 16 and half years behind bars, Hagay remains unrepentant.

“I don’t regret what we did,” he tells me when I ask him to reflect over the past 18 years since the assassination.  “No, I have not changed my mind. We knew what we were doing and we were willing to pay the price.”

I remind him that his parents also paid a heavy price. Their home was set alight, the family car was torched, a fire bomb was hurled into their house and one night his mother found the dinner table ablaze. Periodically there’d be demonstrations staged outside their home; and their letter box would be filled with hate mail. They were also knocked back financially. In the aftermath of the assassination, his mother, Geula, saw many parents withdraw their children from the local kindergarten she was running. Eventually she closed it down.

He nods his head in agreement. “But there was no choice. This was a matter of national importance. You can’t take such things into account. We knew it would hurt us all but you cannot do these sorts of calculations. It’s like a war.”

I suggest we go back to the day of the assassination. Did they have a ready plan?

We knew what we were doing and
we were willing to pay the price.”
“I now think we should have done it two years earlier, but we left some room for [Rabin] to admit that he may have made a mistake. When he signed Oslo B [in which he agreed to hand over territories to the Palestinian Authority], it was clear that he did not think it was a mistake. That is when we resolved to do it. It was impossible to plan it in great detail, but in general yes, we planned it. The idea was to stop him at any price.”

As Yigal set off to the peace rally in Tel Aviv which Rabin was due to address, Hagay remained at home. Was he nervous, I ask him.

“Yes, on the day itself I was very nervous. It was important for me to know that he was alive, that he succeeded. My worse fear was that he would be killed. When I saw him on television, alive, I was relieved.”
The assassination was a fiasco of the first order for the shabak, Israel’s General Security Services, which is charged with providing security to the Prime Minister. A commission set up to investigate the event, found a string of security failures, notably lack of coordination between those responsible for security at the scene and non-adherence to instructions and procedures. Head of the Shabak, Carmi Gillon, tendered his resignation.

Was he surprised, I ask Hagay, at how easy it was for Yigal to gun down Rabin?

 “Of course. I didn’t think we could pull it off. I thought they’d send him away from the area. I mean, the Shabak works and trains for exactly this sort of scenario. If it was a sniper from a distance, the first bullet would have been a surprise. But this was from point-blank range. That is the reason for all the conspiracy theories.”

He touches here on an on-going, contentious issue. Since the assassination, conspiracy theories relating to the assassination have proliferated in newspapers, books and online. And they still do. They range from the plausible to the completely fanciful. There are claims that Rabin was assassinated by the Shabak, or that Shimon Peres (now Israel’s president) engineered the murder. Many of these theories are based on contradictory testimonies, inaccurate records and inconsistent medical reports.

Assassin,Yigal Amir in court
One question which remains unanswered relates to the identity of the person who shouted ‘blank blank’ immediately after the shooting. Conspiracy theorists claim that it issued from a shabak operative and indicates that this was an ‘inside job’ that had gone horribly wrong.

“Initially, I thought it was Yigal who shouted these words,” recalls Hagay, “to win a few extra seconds, but he told me emphatically that it was not him. He had heard it coming from someone standing at the top of the steps.”

Geula, his mother, still believes that her son fired blank bullets which had surreptitiously been replaced with the live ones in his pistol, and that the author of the killing is ‘someone else’.  So I put it to Hagay squarely: is it possible that Yigal did not shoot prime minister Yitzchak Rabin?

His reply is succinct: “He shot him”.

We move on to his time in prison. Here Hagay appears more animated. It is clear that he wants to get something off his chest.  The Israel Prison Service (IPS), he maintains, is engaged in a consistent, brutal and on-going vendetta against him and Yigal.

“I’ll give you an example”, he offers. “I did an Open University maths course. Of course the IPS had to agree for me to do it. Don’t forget that I was held throughout my time in solitary confinement, so I had no direct access to books. When I wanted to sit the exam, my request was refused on the grounds that I had no clearance to do the exams. I petitioned to the courts and there the IPS claimed that I was not enrolled in any studies – and this is after I had already completed two courses. You see, it’s that sort of base lies, and the judges are in their pockets.”

Then there was the incident with the mobile phone.

“One of the prison guards confiscated my mobile phone. I said to him: ‘what, are you worried that I would use it to murder [then Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon?’ – or something like that. They filed a report and added commentary of their own to what I had said, and I was charged with threatening to kill the prime minister. For this I was given another year inside, of which six months were to be served cumulatively.”

He offers numerous other examples to back up the claim that both he and his brother have been on the receiving end of discriminatory ‘special treatment’ by the IPS; treatment which, as he puts it, constitutes vengeance for its own sake.

But it is not just the treatment meted out against him which he rails against. In the course of his incarceration, he was transferred from one prison to another, according to him for no apparent reason, and was witness to what he describes as systematic cruel treatment of prisoners whose most basic rights are routinely abused. 

“They shackle prisoners to their beds for the flimsiest of excuses. They can tie you like that for four days without being required to obtain a court warrant or special permission. It is an every-day punitive measure. In fact, now the beds already come with rings soldered to the posts to make it easier to shackle a prisoner’s feet and hands. The screaming at night was terrible. Sometimes a shackled prisoner would have to scream for two hours to be allowed to go to the toilet before anyone would hear him. It was like this almost every night: shouting, screaming, pleading.”

He raises numerous legal and moral issues which, in turn, beg a fundamental common question. Is a prison a place you are sent to as punishment, or is it a place you are sent to for punishment?

A spokesperson for the IPS refused to comment on these and other allegations, on account of their general nature and the fact that they refer to incidents that ‘supposedly happened in the distant past’. Given this, it is hard to ascertain if Hagay’s allegations are true or not.

Still, it is astonishing that he undertook to petition the courts on behalf of other inmates, notably Palestinians, whose rights, he says, were routinely denied.

He registers my look of surprise and smiles.

“Some of them were from Hizbollah. I don’t hate them. I see them as legitimate enemies. I petitioned on their behalf to the courts not once, or twice. The IPS exploits the fact that some prisoners cannot read Hebrew, have no lawyer and are not aware of their rights.

The conversation shifts from the general to the specific, namely the maximum security Ayalon Prison in the city of Ramla where Yigal was serving his time in a purpose built isolation cell. When I mention that it is the same cell where Australian-born and alleged Mossad agent Ben Zygier was found dead, he casually responds: “Yes, they murdered him, it’s clear, or drove him to suicide.”

Hagay is familiar with the cell. He visited his brother there on no less than 11 occasions, each time for three hours. Israel has maintained a veil of secrecy on all matters regarding Ben Zygier so tight that not only was there a gag order on the existence of  ‘prisoner X’, but there was also a gag order that barred journalists from even mentioning the gag order. Even his jailers at the time didn’t know who he was or what he had done. It was not until Zygier’s suicide was exposed by journalist Trevor Bormann on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program, that his existence came to light.

Ben Zygier
Hagay takes out a pen and borrows my notepad, carefully drawing a bird’s eye view plan of the cell where Zygier was kept: a 5 by 3 metres cell with a shower and a toilet hidden by a low partition and an adjoining courtyard. There are close circuit cameras in the ceiling corners.  As he mulls over the complex set of doors and corridors, his mother walks in, looks at the sketch, and reminds him that there’s another set of doors which he has forgotten to draw. Finally, I have a sketch of the cell.

“This is a cell that was intended to kill its resident,” he declares resolutely. “They wanted him to die and he died.”

“This is a cell that was
intended to kill its resident,”
“They say that he committed suicide. It’s all rubbish, all lies. To get to you in an emergency would take over 15 minutes just to unlock the gates. There are, let’s see”, he consults his sketch on my notepad, “one, two, three, four locked gates until you get to your cell – by that time you can be mummified. If you’re not infused with faith or an ideal to sustain you, a place like that would be very difficult to live in. Most people would not stand such isolation. It is cruelty beyond the imagination.”

Hagay says that he has not changed over the years, but as the interview progresses it becomes clear that he has.

He is evidently capable of empathy for those who do not share his world view – indeed, even oppose it. He describes himself as someone interested in, and sensitive to, human rights. But he also comes across as disillusioned, even bitter. Friends have abandoned him and political allies have disassociated themselves from him.  He doesn’t vote in general elections and labels Israel’s Right-wing parties, his former political home, weaklings; their leaders are gutless, devoid of ideals. “I am not willing to fight for these people,” he says, “I am willing to fight for a Jewish state, with Jewish values.”

It is his ‘Jewish values’, those same values which drove him to plot against Rabin 18 years ago, which have made him, and his brother, a reviled murderer in the eyes of most Israelis. But, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word, Hagay has kept to his guns. He remains unmoved, unchanged and unrepentant. Even when a district judge informed him that he would be eligible for parole, or home visits, if only he expressed remorse –Hagay would not countenance it. “Sticking to your beliefs and principles gives you an unbelievable feeling of power,” he explains. By his own admission, the family name now carries the mark of Cain. His career path has been blocked (he works as a welder but wants to study physics). A younger brother was barred from a university because of his ‘bad stock’, and another was not drafted into the army, again because of his association with the Amir name.
Memorial site, Rabin Square.
However, within his own community, Hagay and his family are warmly embraced. And it is within his community, consisting of right-wing ideologues, that he garners support for his campaign to secure Yigal’s release from prison. The idea is propagated through social media, disseminated in youtube clips and promoted on bumper stickers.

It is difficult to see how this may happen, or how Yigal’s release can ever be justified. I ask him if he sees a president of Israel ever granting Yigal pardon. He hesitates for a moment and then replies. “No, I don’t think that would happen, but I believe the country will collapse, just like Egypt or Syria, and then it might happen.


Anonymous said...

A well balanced article about a guy who is clearly imbalanced. It is sad and shocking that after so long this man still has no regrets and no remorse.

Anonymous said...

it was well done/ I was very happy? fnd I stiil happy

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