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Israel fears its own Giffords shooting

Police officials fear assassinations as political rhetoric heats up

JERUSALEM — Israeli law enforcement officials, concerned about virulent divisions between left- and right-wing groups in the country, have warned that a political assassination could be imminent.

Dudi Cohen, Israel's police commissioner, told a conference earlier this month that "murder for ideological reasons … could occur in Israel" and that it was "one of the most disturbing topics of these times."

Cohen added that more than 100 public figures in Israel require police protection, but that courts don't hand down significant punishments against those who make threats, on average giving only a quarter of the maximum sentence for such crimes.

As if to highlight the danger, Cohen's warning came on the same day Yona Avrushmi was released from prison. Yona Avrushmi threw a hand grenade at a Peace Now demonstration in 1983, killing a marcher. Though he later expressed regret for the incident, prosecutors maintained a constant battle against calls for clemency by activists on the right.

According to one Israeli commentator, Avrushmi would've been released long ago had he been associated with one of the country's right-wing blocs, such as the settlement movement. Those blocs exercise political power and their rhetoric causes the atmosphere in which such men act, said Yossi Sarid, a former leader of the leftist Meretz Party. It's wrong to suggest that Avrushmi or the right-wing assassin of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Amir, truly acted alone, he said.

"The inciters and ranters have intimidated the [security services], which are averse to dealing with rabbis and religious figures who issue religious pronouncements calling for death sentences," he added.

Israeli politicians — as well as leading rabbis and media commentators — have stepped up their use of violent rhetoric in recent months, especially when talking about politicians they consider leftist, Arabs and illegal immigrants.

Many here, in fact, fear a situation similar to the one that erupted in the United States when a gunman critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six bystanders. As in the United States, many Israelis — including the police commissioner — believe that the climate of violent speech fosters a belief in some that physical attacks are justified.

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There are extremists across the political spectrum, but what the police commissioner fears — though diplomatically he didn't spell it out — is the killing of a supposed leftist by someone on the right. Israelis made something of a reckoning with themselves over this issue after the 1995 Rabin assassination. A right-winger, who opposed his plan to hand over occupied territory to the Palestinians, killed the prime minister.

But whatever self-examination occurred then among nationalists has largely disappeared, washed away by years of violence during the intifada of the last decade and by a new generation of politicians in the governing coalition who feel untainted by the Rabin killing and unrestrained in their rhetoric against political opponents.

The incitement against leftist politicians has undeniably increased in the last year and has reached something of a fever pitch.

An Israeli legislator representing a predominantly Arab party was accused last year of being in league with Iran and other enemies of Israel by right-wing lawmakers after she participated in the flotilla of Turkish ships attempting to enter Gaza, a violation of Israel's blockade.

Last month, leftists accused parties in the governing coalition of McCarthyism because of a bill introduced to create a committee investigating the funding of Israeli human rights organizations. Because the rights groups frequently highlight violations of Palestinian human rights, right-wingers accuse them of working for Israel's enemies. One legislator alleged that funding for some of the groups comes from "the Arab world."

The head of that committee, Michael Ben-Ari of the conservative National Union Party, demonstrated the thrust of his investigative intentions in the Knesset recently. "I will protect the State of Israel from all its haters, both at home and abroad, who want to see it destroyed," he said.

The committee has been condemned by many Israeli politicians and by a petition signed by 60 law professors. Last week, President Shimon Peres said probes of political groups, of the right and left, "must be left to law enforcement, which is the expert, objective system."

Those who fear violence say that the danger isn't only to leftist politicians and activists. Officials of state bodies who are politically unaffiliated also face threats when they speak out against violent rhetoric or hate speech.

The head of the State Attorney's special tasks division was given police protection last month after an Internet video circulated. The video was a reaction to the official's request that police investigate two Facebook groups that incited violence against Arabs. One of the groups was named "Death to all Arabs."

In an apartment building in Jerusalem, security cameras sprouted in the lobby and parking garage after threats were made against the district court judge in the penthouse apartment. Her tires had been repeatedly slashed and threats made against her — all related to a case she was hearing.

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The police commissioner argued that it would take another 1,000 police officers to significantly reduce the country's crime rate. There are now about 35,000 police employees in Israel.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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