Assassin's accomplice defends killing of Rabin
Hagai Amir spent more than 16 years in prison for his part in the assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. There are no regrets, he tells Ori Golan in a world exclusive interview.
November 4, 1995, Kings of Israel Square, Tel Aviv. Shortly after 9.30pm, as jubilant Israelis returned home from a peace rally in support of the peace process between Israel and the PLO, they switched on their televisions and were stunned to hear prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's bureau chief, Eitan Haber, delivered a bombshell.
"The government of Israel announces in shock, in great sadness and in deep sorrow, the death of prime minister and minister of defence Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered by an assassin, tonight in Tel Aviv."
It was a murder that rocked the country and threatened to plunge it into civil war.
The murder was the culmination of a co-ordinated hate campaign that had begun with the historic handshake between Rabin and Yasser Arafat two years previously. In the midst of a Palestinian terror crusade, and in an attempt to derail the peace process, political parties from the far right mobilised Israel's religious Zionists to delegitimise the government. And the primary target was Rabin.
In several forums he was declared a traitor and an enemy of the Jews - crimes that, some radical rabbis claimed, were punishable by death. 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 Hagai Amir, the assassin and his accomplice.
At the end of the rally, as Rabin walked down to the car park next to the square, Yigal leapt from the shadows, aimed his Beretta 84F semi-automatic pistol at Rabin and fired three shots. Two of them hit Rabin.
Hagai was involved in planning the assassination. He also refashioned the tips of the bullets that his brother used in the killing to form dum-dum bullets that expand on impact to rip through flesh. Both men were tried and convicted. Hagai received 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 bodyguard.
A special law, passed by the Knesset in 2001, means he cannot be pardoned and denies him the possibility of parole. Another accomplice, Dror Adani, was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.
Hagai does not trust journalists, or like them. Since his release from prison, in May last year, he has steadfastly refused to give interviews or co-operate with the media. He believes he will not get a fair hearing.
It is undeniable that mainstream media have shown deep antipathy towards him and Yigal, as have most Israelis, chiefly because neither has ever expressed remorse or regret over their deed. But 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 that was later validated by a rabbinical court. In October 2007, despite the prison service's efforts to torpedo their plan, the couple brought a son into the world.
Hagai invites me to meet him at his parents' home where he has been living since his release from prison, last year. When I arrive, he leads me into the family's living room. We sit around a dinner table. At 44, after 16 years behind bars, Hagai is unrepentant.
"I don't regret what we did," he tells me when I ask him to reflect over the 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 firebomb was hurled into their house and one night his mother found the dinner table ablaze. Periodically there would be demonstrations staged outside their home; and their letterbox would be filled with hate mail.
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? "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 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 that Rabin was due to address, Hagai 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 worst fear was that he would be killed. When I saw him on television, alive, I was relieved."
Israel's General Security Services, or Shin Bet, charged with protecting the prime minister, had clearly failed. Was he surprised, I ask, at how easy it was for Yigal to gun down Rabin?
"Of course. I didn't think we could pull it off. I mean, the [Shin Bet] 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."
There are claims that Rabin was assassinated by Shin Bet, 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.
Geula, his mother, still believes her son fired blank bullets that had surreptitiously been placed in his pistol, replacing the live ones, and that the killer is "someone else". So I put it to Hagai: is it possible that Yigal did not shoot prime minister Yitzhak Rabin?
His reply is succinct: "He shot him."
We move on to his time in prison. The Israel Prison Service, he says, is engaged in a consistent, brutal and continuing vendetta against him and Yigal. In the course of his incarceration, he claims he was transferred from one prison to another 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 everyday 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."
An IPS spokesman 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 Hagai's allegations are true or not.
When he mentions that he undertook to petition the courts on behalf of other inmates, notably Palestinians, whose rights, he says, were routinely denied, he notes my look of surprise and smiles.
"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."
Hagai claims that he has not changed over his time in prison, but it is apparent he has. He is evidently capable of empathy for those who do not share his world view - indeed, even oppose it. 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 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 that drove him to plot against Rabin 18 years ago, which have made him, and his brother, reviled murderers in the eyes of most Israelis. On that account, he remains unrepentant. Even when a district judge informed him that he would be eligible for parole if only he expressed remorse - Hagai would not countenance it. "Sticking to your beliefs and principles gives you an unbelievable feeling of power," he says.
But within his own community of right-wing ideologues, Hagai and his family are warmly embraced. And it is within his community that he has support for his campaign to secure Yigal's release from prison. The idea is propagated through social media, YouTube and promoted on bumper stickers.
I ask him if he sees a president of Israel ever granting Yigal pardon. He hesitates 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."