Talking to the Brother of the Man Who Assassinated an Israeli Prime Minister
This post originally appeared in VICE France
Nineteen years ago, on November 4, 1995, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a young, far-right militant named Yigal Amir. Convicted in 1996, Amir is now serving a life sentence. His accomplices--his brother Hagai and their friend Dror Adani--were condemned to 16 and seven years of imprisonment respectively.
Hagai's release in the spring of 2012 was greeted angrily by those he'd made his enemies--but to many of the partisans in the Israeli far right, the two brothers are heroes.
In 2006, the daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot dug up some disturbing statistics: According to a poll, the number of Israelis favorable to the release of Yigal Amir in 1996 was at 10 percent; ten years later, the number had risen to 30 percent. The same year, a committee in support of Amir was created and some demonstrations were organized in Tel Aviv. Haaretz journalist Tamara Traubman took up the baton in opposing these events, writing an article to decry Yigal Amir's stardom.
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, who died of three bullets in the back, took place at the end of a rally for peace at Tel Aviv City Hall Square on November 4, 1995. His murderer had already tried to kill him on three prior occasions earlier that same year.
Internationally, Yigal found support among the most extreme activists of the Jewish diaspora. The Jewish Defense League (JDL), a movement known for its violent actions and considered a terrorist group by both the Israeli government and the US State Department, publicly backed Yitzhak Rabin's killer many times. Binyamin Kahane, the son of the movement's founder, supported the assassination. In France, the JDL argued for his release by writing on their blog: "If Palestinian murderers are released, Yigal should be granted the same favor."
To provide an opinion about all this, I contacted Adam, an activist and member of the leftist organization Peace Now. He confirmed that the killer and his brother were popular with certain segments of the Israeli population and said this was due to the right wing's anger at Rabin, the leftist Prime Minister who signed the Oslo Accords--which laid the foundations for a peace effort in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Adam's opinion, it is not just the Amir brothers who must take responsibility for the attack, but the entire Israeli right wing. Adam drew contrasts between the tribute that current Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu paid to his deceased predecessor in October, and Netanyahu's time as leader of the Likud Party, supported by militants who burned pictures of Rabin while threatening and tirelessly insulting the man who would be murdered a few weeks later. (Following Adam's allegations, I tried to contact Likud, but their spokespeople did not respond to my interview request.)
After his release last year, Hagai created a Facebook profile as part of the campaign he is leading to free his brother. It was through this profile that I started to chat with him a year ago. On his page, there are excerpts of the diary he kept during his detention, photos and drawings, political propaganda, conspiracy theories and messages written by some of his 750 friends.
When VICE accepted my pitch for an interview, I thought that all correspondence would happen through the internet. However, thanks to my charming interpreter Nira, we not only talked to Hagai Amir several times online, but also arranged for him to meet her in person. Their meeting lasted several hours and took place in a café at Herzliya beach, the city where Hagai now lives with his parents. They talked about his brother, about his relationship with him, about the assassination, his detention, his release, politics, religion and the State of Israel, as well as about many other things. We tried to understand how one can become the Middle Eastern equivalent of Lee Harvey Oswald and never regret killing a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Reserved, polite, and self-confident, he spoke relatively easily about the assassination and about the rest of the case, although his words were slightly contradictory at times. He left hoping to see Nira "soon."
VICE: How does one get to assassinate a Prime Minister?
Hagai Amir: My brother and I have always been politically involved. Instead of resigning ourselves, accepting decisions taken by our leaders, such as the Oslo Accords, and being the ones who endured the consequences, we decided to change the course of things. It took us two years to prepare our action and to think about it. We thought about it a lot and it did not come instantly out of our head. Our aim was not to kill Rabin but to interrupt a process that was leading to the death of our country. It is too early to declare whether or not our action was really useful. But we did what we thought was the fairest and the best for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel at that time.
So I guess you have no regrets for what you did.
No. Yigal gave his freedom to the people of Israel and we have no reason at all to regret this. We acted in accordance with the halakha [the Jewish law] and my brother accomplished a great mitzvah.
I don't understand how you can say you acted "in accordance with the halakha" when one of the most important commandments says clearly that "Thou shalt not kill." You killed a man who had been democratically elected by the citizens.
The Torah is the Torah of Israel, not the Torah of fools. And, if it clearly prohibits murder, it also encourages to kill instead of being killed. Sometimes, we have no choice and we must kill to save lives. And here it becomes legal. In our case, a man [Yitzhak Rabin] had endangered the lives of thousands of Jews by helping the Palestinian Authority and by giving it the opportunity to attack Israel more easily. We killed with good intention: We wanted to save the Jewish people.
When an Israeli soldier kills an Arab who tried to hurt the Jewish people and the State of Israel, everyone understands why he is doing it, although the risk of death for the soldier who fired is low most of the time. Yigal shot with the same legitimacy.
Many rabbis judged your act contrary to Jewish law.
These rabbis never had the courage to address the issue objectively.
Is there something which could have prevented you from killing Yitzhak Rabin?
I was in love with a girl. We were not together but, if she had discovered what my brother and I were getting ready to do and if she had wanted me not to do it, everything would have probably been different.
If Yigal had decided to eventually give up, would you have killed Rabin by yourself?
Yigal was way more determined than I was. He was ready to die--I was not. If he had given up, sooner or later, I would have probably done it myself. But not in the same way as he did.
What was your family's reaction to the murder?
Our family has always loved us. Therefore, of course they would have preferred us not to kill him. But they supported me when I was in jail and they have continued to do so since I got out.
How was your detention?
I studied the Torah and mathematics. But the daily life in jail was not easy. During all these years, every day, guards were humiliating me or trying to break me. For example, they cancelled a lot of visits which had yet been approved by the judge. Sometimes, my cell was searched up to three times a day. But my faith in God helped me to endure all of this and I do not regret anything.
In 2012, in the only interview you gave since you got out of jail to 972mag.com , you said you met Hamas members during your detention. Are you still in touch with them? Can you tell us a bit more about your relationship with the other inmates?
I have never had any problems with other inmates, whether they were Jews or Arabs. I had conversations with some of them, including Ibrahim Hamed--the Hamas military commander in the West Bank. There was neither hatred nor tension. We considered each other enemies, but also as a soldier from the opposite side, detained by a violent regime that should be the last one to complain when violence is directed towards it. Today, I am not in touch with those terrorists but, in another environment, we could have been friends.
Besides studying the Torah and maths, and being harassed by guards and making friends with other inmates--did you not do anything else during these 16 years?
I was involved in many other activities. For example, one year for Purim [a Jewish holiday where all the religious men get drunk] I was assigned to help with the wine-making. But we had a mix-up with the alcohol quantities. Everyone ended up drunk and some fell and had to be taken to the hospital.
In 2006, while in prison, you also threatened to kill Ariel Sharon, who was then the Prime Minister of Israel. You were sentenced to six more months. Why did you want to kill Sharon?
As I already explained, the aim of our act was not to kill or even harm anyone, but rather to stop the course of events that was leading to the death of Israel. Sharon was as responsible as Rabin for this decline.
Are you still an activist and would you be willing to kill again?
I am not a militant any more though I am a sympathizer of the Jewish Home [which is the fourth most powerful political party in Israel and which belongs to the religious far right. The party is led by Naftali Bennett, current Minister of Industry, Trade, Labour and Religious Services, who recently became internationally famous after saying "I've killed many Arabs in my life and I see no problem in that."]
I disagree with a fringe of the right wing that hates Arabs only because they are Arabs. Attacking them because of their ethnicity is total nonsense. I am also against the idea of giving up land to Palestinians, especially if Jews live on it and I think Israel should return to the borders it had after the 1967 war [when Israel conquered Sinai, Gaza, West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan].
How do you see the future of your country?
The State of Israel has no future and it is disintegrating. I think the regime will collapse, as it did or is about to do in Egypt and Syria.
In 1994, the three signatories of the Oslo Accords, Shimon Peres [one of the architects of these agreements and current Israeli President], Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin received the Nobel Peace Prize. What are your thoughts on that?
Rewarding the sponsors and signatories of treaties that have directly led to the death of many people is shameful and ridiculous. After being given to such murderers, this prize has lost all its credibility and no longer has any meaning.
Exactly like the other signatories, Rabin is responsible for the attacks that have resulted from the signing. Just as he is responsible for the sinking of the Altalena in 1948 and therefore for the death of 16 innocent Jews. Rabin's family and supporters have never cried for these deaths but have been mourning their murderer for 18 years. He deserved nothing but what he got.
This view of history and the responsibility of Rabin in the attacks that followed the Oslo Accords are highly questionable.
It gets worse with each and every critique my brother and I have received because they all come from people who did not show any shame when they elected this murderer as Prime Minister. This criticism does not come from people like my brother and I, who are in principle opposed to murder. Their protests like the one they held last October [which gathered 30,000 Israelis] have no other purpose than supporting the withdrawal of Israel in the West Bank and thus put Israel and its inhabitants in danger.
You have been talking in the name of your brother since the beginning of this interview. You seem very close. How would you define your relationship with him? Can you tell us more about your childhood?
We grew up in religious family in Herzliya, with six more siblings. My brother and I are indeed very close--as if we were the same person. We have been inseparable since our childhood and we have always been happy together. Nowadays, we spend our time talking to each other on the telephone and we met about three years ago for 30 minutes. In 2007, Yigal and his wife--they married in jail--had a son. I more or less became the father figure for this child and I take care of him as I would my own son.
How's life been since your release?
My return to freedom has been fine. After 16 and a half years in jail--mostly in solitary confinement--I could see that many things have changed in my country and not at all for the best. I am now studying engineering and I am running my own welding company.
I live with my parents, I earn a good living and I get a lot of expressions of sympathy. I am invited to events and I have no problem meeting women--I do not feel isolated. People prefer to be discreet, but many support me and understand what we did.
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