Police to probe settlers group on conspiracy charges

JERUSALEM — Israeli police officials have been given the go-ahead to investigate the leaders of a Jewish settlers group on conspiracy and myriad other charges.

The investigation will focus on the leadership of Zo Artzeinu ( This is Our Land), which has spearheaded protests against the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to expand Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.

At the same time, Knesset opposition leaders are charging that the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is attempting to stifle protest against expanding Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank.

The Knesset members cite repeated acts of police brutality, an increasingly frequent charge made by settlers during a summer of widespread demonstrations against the government's peace policies.

"Freedom of expression is a basic right in a democratic regime, but public order is also a value that must be protected," said Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair of the decision to investigate Zo Artzeinu.

Police officials said they had reason to examine the group because it published a pamphlet containing instructions on blocking the highways.

The grassroots settlers group coordinated an Aug. 8 protest in which roads throughout Israel were blocked during the evening rush hour. The group's leaders will be investigated on charges that they conspired to commit a crime, encouraged people to prevent police officers from doing their duty and obstructed an investigation.

Rabbi Benny Alon, one of the Zo Artzeinu leaders, told Army Radio that he welcomed the police investigation, adding that the group had "nothing to hide."

Opposition leaders are comparing the investigation of Zo Artzeinu to recent government efforts to shut down a right-wing pirate station known as Channel 7.

In both cases, opposition leaders say, the government is doing whatever it can to quell dissent to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Members of the Knesset opposition also assert that the government has created a climate in which the Israeli police commit acts of brutality against demonstrators.

The suggestion last week during a special Knesset session by Rehavam Ze'evi of the right-wing Moledet Party that demonstrators may fire back if fired upon by police has sparked a storm of controversy.

Ze'evi was complaining about what he called the use of excessive force by police against protesters demonstrating against the government.

If the opposition parties assume power, there would be a "blacklist" of police who hit demonstrators, he said.

"If they use [tear] gas against us, we will consider it live fire, and respond accordingly," he said.

Police Minister Moshe Shahal condemned the statements.

"This is a totally inappropriate declaration," Shahal said. "There is a kind of rebellion against law enforcers, to interfere with their fulfilling their duties."

However, after consulting with the attorney general, Shahal decided not to press charges for the statements, which he said were made by a "politician whose opinions are known."

The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported that Shahal had received information that right-wing extremists were planning to attack government ministers. Shahal reportedly had stepped up protective measures for Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. At the same time, he called on right-wing leaders to moderate their statements in an effort to avoid inciting extremists.

In response, Likud opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called on the government to allow public debate, which he described as legal and democratic.

Aharon Domb, spokesman for the Yesha Council, which represents settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said acts of violence could work against the legitimate struggle of the settlers.

But he also accused Shahal of waging psychological warfare against Israel's right wing.

Ze'evi's remarks came amid rising concern among political leaders that opposition to the peace process is becoming increasingly violent, in both words and deeds.

Shahal said he was concerned that certain people would be deeply influenced by statements such as those by Ze'evi and would take "extreme actions."

Environment Minister Yossi Sarid also denounced Ze'evi's remarks, saying, "These kinds of threats are exactly the sign of a totalitarian regime."

Ze'evi was not the only opposition member to be critical of police behavior at demonstrations.

Likud Knesset member Uzi Landau accused police officers of not wearing identity tags so they could beat protesters without being identified. But police are meant to protect the right of the demonstrators to express their views, he added.

Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party asked the Knesset's legislative committee to address the legality of methods used by police to disperse a Zo Artzeinu demonstration last week.

Levy said he had pictures and testimony showing that a number of police officers had either covered their name tags with tape or had identified themselves with false names.