Israelis baffled by confessed killers clean background

JERUSALEM — For weeks beforehand, Israel's security services were issuing warnings that the prime minister or another high-ranking government official might be the target of a political assassin.

According to media reports, they developed a profile in which the potential assailant was an apparently mild-mannered, right-wing, religious Israeli Jew.

Yigal Amir, the 25-year-old law student from Bar-Ilan University who confessed to pumping two 9mm bullets into Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Saturday night, fit the profile exactly.

So how did Rabin's security agents allow an assassin to get near their charge?

Apart from an apparent lapse in the security forces' vigilance – which will be the subject of an official investigation — most Israelis did not really expect someone who dressed and looked like an average citizen to kill the prime minister.

Amir, who is Israel's first alleged political assassin, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv. Raised in a religious home, he served in the army and was educated on an elite track of the country's religious Zionist system.

The young Israeli who eluded security Saturday night was the second of eight children born into a warm, religious Yemenite family. Amir's mother, Geula, is a kindergarten teacher; his father, Shlomo, is a scribe known for his religious piety.

Amir attended an Agudat Yisrael religious elementary school before moving on to a state religious high school.

He then enrolled in a Hesder Yeshiva near Ashdod, where his rabbis called him a gifted and friendly student. He also served in the Israel Defense Force's elite Golani Brigade.

After finishing his army service, Amir went to Russia, courtesy of the Israeli government, to teach Hebrew and Judaism as part of a program for Hesder graduates.

He then enrolled in a prestigious kollel program at Bar-Ilan University, in which he studied Talmud and other Jewish disciplines in a yeshiva atmosphere in the mornings, and studied law and computers in the afternoons. Bar-Ilan officials said Amir was a good student who never got into trouble. He studied Russian and reportedly traveled to Russia to bring new immigrants.

Israelis today are baffled at how a person with such a background came to commit — as Amir himself reportedly confessed to police — what is arguably the most heinous act any Israeli has ever perpetrated against his people.

And how does one explain Amir's statement to a Tel Aviv judge at his custody hearing that he neither felt remorse for his crime nor could understand why anyone minded the death of a man who dared trade parts of the Holy Land for peace?

Even Amir's friends are perplexed by his actions.

"He was a wonderful person," Amir's personal friend Avner Goldshmidt told reporters. "I don't understand how he could do this. I'm stunned."

"Yigal was quiet, sensitive and very smart," said Yaron Yehoshua, a childhood neighbor and fellow Bar-Ilan student. "We would have some political arguments, but he never seemed radical."

But according to police reports, Amir's statements showed that he was very patient — and calculating. Amir reportedly surprised his interrogators by telling them he decided to assassinate the prime minister nearly a year ago, when, as he reportedly said, "God told me" to kill Rabin.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, he reportedly admitted, was No. 2 on his hit list. "If both Peres and Rabin had gone down the steps at the same time, I would not have hesitated to kill them both," the Jerusalem Post quoted Amir as telling police. "If it would have been easier to kill Peres, I would have shot him instead."

Amir waited for the right opportunity to strike, according to the police. Foiled last January when Rabin canceled a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, Amir told police investigators that during the summer he again stalked the prime minister — this time at the opening of a highway interchange.

Amir aborted that attempt, he reportedly told his interrogators, because security at the event was too tight.

In the wake of the assassination, Bar-Ilan University reportedly expelled Amir.

On Sunday, while Rabin's body lay in state outside the Knesset, school officials and students held a prayer service to mourn the slain leader.

Bar-Ilan president Shlomo Eckstein issued a statement condemning the assassination as "simply the most un-Jewish act imaginable. It runs contrary to everything Bar-Ilan stands for."

A bodyguard wounded during the assassination is a second-year student at Bar-Ilan.

During the past year, Amir reportedly attended Shabbat group activities at Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as right-wing rallies.

Two weeks ago, he reportedly attended a rally at which extremists compared Rabin to a Nazi and called him a murderer and a traitor.

But those who knew Amir believed his anti-Rabin activism harbored neither bark nor bite.

"Amir always stood in the back at rallies," an unnamed friend reportedly said. "No one ever dreamed he would come to this."

But in recent months Amir reportedly became more open about his desire to see the prime minister dead.

He participated in summertime demonstrations at a hillside near the West Bank settlement of Efrat, where settlers staged repeated protests against Rabin's dealings with the Palestinians.

After Israeli soldiers dragged him off the hill at that rally, Amir reportedly told his friend Goldshmidt, "If someone killed Rabin, [the assassin] would be a man, and I'd salute him."

Goldshmidt said he did not pay much attention to what he considered an isolated outburst.

Soon after, Amir reportedly joined Ayal — a Hebrew acronym for "Jewish Fighters' Organization" — a shadowy radical right-wing group.

Amir began to openly advocate killing Rabin and Peres in conversations with his kollel colleagues, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

One of these colleagues told the paper that Amir would manipulate one of Maimonides' teachings in such a way as to create a halachic justification for "cutting off the heads" of Rabin and Peres, whom Amir referred to as "snakes."

Is Amir a product of a religious, right-wing environment whose rhetorical excesses affected his sense of right and wrong? Or is he just a lone madman?

These are among the questions Israelis will face in the coming months. No matter the answers, Rabin's confessed assassin will remain a reflection of the society from which he emerged.

Meanwhile, the confessed assassin's mother, Geula Amir, said her son had been possessed by "an evil spirit."

Geula Amir made the comments to Herzliya Mayor Eli Landau, who came to the family home and stayed for several hours Tuesday on the advice of a social worker. The mayor learned that the family's daughter had been expelled from her boarding school.

"My world has come tumbling down. I don't know what kind of evil spirit entered Yigal. He did not get this from home," Geula Amir said.

"True, there were political arguments at home the night before the murder. His father agreed with him that the Land of Israel should not be sold, but Yigal's way is not accepted by us. We are in shock, in deep mourning."