Adi Keidar was having a good day at the District Court in Lod. Keidar is the legal adviser of Honenu, a nonprofit created in 2001 to provide legal defense to Jewish suspects of nationalistic crime. Hebrew for “have mercy on us,” it is taken from a verse in Psalms that reads “Have mercy on us, God, have mercy, for we have had our fill of contempt.” According to its website, the organization has so far helped some 18,000 Israelis receive “fair judicial process.”
Keidar’s client on this day, Uri Baram, was charged five years ago with disseminating a homemade video calling for the murder of Deputy Attorney General (and current State Attorney) Shai Nitzan. Baram was angry at Nitzan for refusing to prosecute the organizers of an art exhibition mocking then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, rendering the senior civil servant, in Baram’s view, a traitor to his people. After standing up and delivering a heartfelt apology to the court, Baram was let off with a suspended sentence and 400 hours of community service, instead of jail time for incitement to violence.
After hugging his client and wishing him well, Keidar rushed downstairs to another courtroom, where judges were in the process of releasing another one of his clients—an 18-year-old who had been held for 29 days by police on suspicion of involvement in the firebombing of a Palestinian home in the village of Duma. The attack, which took place on July 31, led to the deaths of parents Saad and Riham Dawabsheh and of their infant son, Ali. The Lod court rejected a request by police to remand the youth in custody pending a second indictment—for physically attacking a Palestinian man two years earlier—sending him home to remain under house arrest.
The right flank of the settler movement has been roiled in recent weeks by reports that suspects in the Duma attack, mostly teenagers like the one released by the court, have been subjected to torture by Israel’s domestic security agency. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home Party, which represents the settler population in parliament, publicly dispelled the allegations, claiming he was closely monitoring the Shin Bet’s conduct. He expressed shock at the Duma attack, referring to its Jewish perpetrators as “terrorists” bent on dismantling the State of Israel. Those comments put Bennett at odds with his hawkish party member Bezalel Smotrich, who had argued that “there is no such thing as Jewish terrorism.”
Born and raised in Natanya to a middle-class family, Keidar followed the classic track of Religious Zionist man: education in an all-boys high-school yeshiva; gap year in an advanced yeshiva; combat military service in an elite unit in the paratroopers, from which he was discharged as a deputy company commander after four years of service. Today, at 44, being relieved of mandatory reserve duty, he continues to volunteer as an operations officer in the IDF Southern Command and took part in all the recent operations in Gaza, including last summer’s Protective Edge.
Yet as the rift between state loyalists and skeptics widens within the National Zionist sector, to which Keidar belongs, the criminal defense lawyer prefers to talk about the law and proper legal procedure. In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court banned the use of harsh physical interrogation means except for cases of “ticking bombs,” where the attorney general has the authority to authorize exceptions. Keidar argues that that license has been widened and abused by the system for years.
“Our mistake as lawyers was that we hadn’t protested these methods strongly enough when they began back in 2011,” he said. “What’s shocking is that these methods are permitted by law.”
His clients, arrested by the police and the Shin Bet in recent months, have reported various forms of physical abuse including sleep deprivation, endless interrogations while tied to their chairs, and subhuman detention conditions. One of Keidar’s clients, a 17-year-old American-Israeli suspected of involvement in the Duma firebombing, reported being slapped, kicked, pinched, and pushed back on his chair in an awkward position, his eyes sometimes blindfolded. His request to meet with American diplomats has not yet been granted. The Shin Bet returned no response to a request for clarification on these allegations.
Some accuse Keidar and his colleague, extreme-right activist and attorney Itamar Ben Gvir, of exacerbating the violence used against the detained teenagers by advising them to remain silent during investigations. Keidar retorts that silence is his remedy of choice in most criminal questioning, ideological or otherwise.
“I’ve come to believe in my 15 years of legal practice that facing an investigation is an unfair situation. Being investigated, you have no ability to properly state your version of events, and you can’t trust police to examine your claims,” he said. “This legal right should be taken very seriously, especially before you’ve met your lawyer.”
Israeli police, he added, handles itself in a manner which is “unjust and inequitable.” It frequently tries to extract confessions, which are referred to by many Israeli legalists as “the queen of evidence.”
“Our police doesn’t do its job. It doesn’t investigate, it doesn’t corroborate and compare [evidence]. It likes confessions, because it trusts that once one is obtained the courts will ask for nothing else.”
Practicing law was never a dream for Keidar. “I’m not one of those kids who grew up watching L.A. Law,” he said. “I saw it as an easy degree.” But after graduating from Natanya College, he interned with high-end defense lawyer Yarom Halevi and “caught the bug.” Immediately following his internship, in 2000, he opened his own firm in Ramat Gan, specializing in criminal and administrative cases. Initially representing suspects of violence, drug trade, and white-collar crime, around 2004 Keidar heard that Honenu was looking for volunteers to advise Jewish detainees “who faced legal difficulties following clashes with security forces or Arabs.”
“It came as a surprise to me, but I quickly connected with these people. I saw the injustice and the persecution they faced,” he recalled. There is something intrinsically cynical in the life of a defense lawyer, Keidar conceded, so working for suspects motivated by ideology rather than greed serves as a breath of fresh air.
“A criminal lawyer must bundle up his feelings and sense of morality and leave them at home at 7 a.m., collecting them again when he returns to his children in the wee hours,” he said. “You must keep your cool and rely only on the evidence and documents you view in the case. That’s emotionally difficult when you see shocking things like murder, rape, or large-scale embezzlement.”
“You have to disconnect. If you can’t, you have no business being a criminal lawyer.”
While Keidar would never condone violence, it may help that anti-establishmentarianism runs deep in the family. His maternal grandparents belonged to the Etzel, the pre-state militia also known as the Irgun, which fought the British Mandate government in Palestine, inspired by the Revisionist teachings of the Beitar movement. His grandfather spent three years in exile in Eritrea during the mid-1940s along with 250 fellow insurgents, banished by the British for subversive activities, which included passport forgery.
“My mother was named Ze’eva, after Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and Menachem Begin attended my parents’ wedding,” Keidar bragged. “As a child I read books about my grandfather escaping from jail in Africa three times. These things inevitably seep in.”
Keidar identifies with the ideological fervor of the hilltop youth, which he compares to that of his grandparents, who simultaneously fought the British Mandate and their domestic adversaries in the mainstream Haganah.
“The Land of Israel is in my blood,” he said. “In the 1990s, the settlements developed very nicely, so it was hard for me to witness people who were trying to strengthen the settlement project […] being arrested following clashes which were essentially nonviolent. People were being hurt after setting up an outpost or being harassed by Arabs or [Israeli] security forces.”
“I felt that these people needed defense because they were being challenged by a state which, rather than strengthening and helping them, was busy fighting them.”
The Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 was a turning point in Keidar’s career. As early as February, he said, police began arresting hundreds of protesters against the decision of Ariel Sharon’s government. Keidar set up a legal command center in his office and began recruiting dozens of volunteer lawyers to represent the masses of detainees. As summer approached, government efforts went into high gear.
“The [legal] system was totally mobilized,” he recalled. “Special detention centers were set up. Special courts were established inside the prisons to enable the process. The entire system was committed to pushing the government decision through, because the religious community believed that if it would just protest enough, circling Gush Katif holding hands, it may not happen.”
For Keidar, the political folly of the Gaza disengagement was also a legal travesty. “There was a dramatic infringement of rights. Thirteen- and 14-year-old children were arrested and held pending indictment. From a legal standpoint, extremely harsh things took place, and they created a deep chasm that would play out later on.”
Displaced and traumatized, the youth of Gush Katif, as well as their supporters from within the Green Line, would translate their disenchantment with the state into higher than usual levels of criminality, as well as political extremism on the fringes.
“Every society has teenage dropouts,” he said. “In Tel Aviv, they turn to drugs and loitering. These guys channeled it elsewhere, to the establishment of outposts and settlements. True, it wasn’t always done by the book; they lived in caves and tents. […] You can’t expect 16-year-olds to be completely mature and seek legal permits.”
Violent “price tag” attacks against Palestinians were not an inevitable outcome of the political energy displayed by the so-called “hilltop youth,” Keidar argued. Were it not for the heavy hand of the Shin Bet and the carelessness of political leadership, including that of the settler movement’s Yesha Council, settlement activity would remain pacifist, even if illegal.
A sharp debate is currently raging within the settler community as to whether the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks are loose cannons or whether they receive rabbinical guidance in their violent actions. “This undefined group, over which criticism is being directed at religious Zionism, is named ‘hilltop youth’ by the media. It is unknown who its leaders, rabbis, or guru is, and if these even exist. This is a group of anarchists who have nothing to do with the religious-national education they’ve received in the institutions of Religious Zionism,” wrote Rabbi Yisrael Rosen, head of the Zomet Institute, which invents technological solutions for problems of religious observance. “On the contrary, their entire ideology is anti-Zionist and anti-religious.”
But Rabbi Aviya Hacohen, a teacher at the Tekoa Yeshiva and the Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies in Jerusalem, argued that rabbis can’t wash their hands of settler violence that easily. “I don’t think that Rabbi Dov Lior [of Kiryat Arba] supported the murder in Duma,” he told Channel 2 News recently, “but he shouldn’t cry over it. If he endorses the book Torat Hamelech [which justifies the killing of Palestinian civilians] and then some kids go, he’s guilty. […] These rabbis should be placed in Herem,” or community censure.
In this debate, Keidar falls more on Rosen’s side than on Hacohen’s.
“The numbers of ‘price tag’ perpetrators are in the dozens, no more,” he said. “In my opinion, they follow no rabbis. I think they do whatever they want.”
The arrests in the Duma case are considered the first successes of the Unit for Nationalist Crime set up in the Judea and Samaria police district in early 2013. Hundreds of reported Jewish price tag attacks—which include vandalism of Palestinian cars, olive orchards, houses, and mosques—have never led to indictments, Israeli human rights groups charge. But six months ago, Keidar said, police began arresting the outspoken, radical leaders of the hilltop youth and placing them under administrative arrest. More recently, the violence employed by the Shin Bet in the Duma interrogations has shed light on four or five other unsolved cases.
Honenu accompanies suspects in their initial encounter with the law, up until an indictment is filed. When a file reaches the court, defendant’s families hire their own defense lawyers. In a few notable cases, Keidar said, he was happy to be rid of his clients when their case was handed over to other advocates.
Such was the case of a minor arrested for the kidnapping and murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem in July 2014. “Representing him was very difficult for me,” Keidar confessed. “I must admit that I was somewhat relieved when the case was handed over to someone else.” The youth in question was convicted of kidnapping and murder by the Jerusalem District Court on Nov. 30.
Another famous client of Keidar’s was Yaakov “Jack” Teitel, an American-born Israeli sentenced in 2013 to life in prison for the murder of two Palestinian men and the attempted murder of two Israelis: a university professor and a teenager whom he suspected of belonging to Jews for Jesus.
“When I met Teitel I thought he had serious mental issues and believed that’s where this case was headed,” Keidar said. “Here too, I was relieved to not represent him, since his actions and their severity don’t reflect the ideology which brought me to the organization.”
Criticism from the left—accusing ideologues like Keidar of hypocrisy for turning a blind eye to Shin Bet torture against Palestinian suspects—does not fall on deaf ears. On the contrary.
“My positions on this matter have been shaken,” Keidar admitted, but he still rules out collaboration with left-wing nonprofits like the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, which has been dealing with allegations of police and Shin Bet abuse for over two decades.
“In promoting the issue of human rights, it’s quite possible that Arabs too will benefit,” he said. “Let them benefit.”
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