In recent days, the news media have been reporting that a Hamas military commander named Mohammed Deif is one of the senior figures directing the thousands of Gaza rocket attacks against Israel. What the media have not mentioned is that the Clinton administration had numerous opportunities to put Deif behind bars, but instead led him slip right through its fingers.
Deif was a senior disciple of the infamous Yehya Ayyash, the Hamas master bomber nicknamed “The Engineer.” After Ayyash was killed in 1995, Deif succeeded him. Deif co-designed the Qassam rocket, thousands of which have been blasting Israeli towns, homes, and kindergartens.
The bombings that Deif masterminded took the lives of hundreds Israelis, as well as a number of American citizens, including Ira Weinstein and Jewish Theological Seminary student Matthew Eisenfeld and his fiancé, Sara Duker of New Jersey, who were passengers on a Jerusalem bus that Deif’s men bombed on February 25, 1996; Yitzhak Weinstock, the teenage grandson of Los Angeles rabbi Simon Dolgin, murdered in a drive-by shooting on December 1, 1993; and American-Israeli soldier Nachshon Wachsman, kidnapped and murdered by Hamas in October 1994.
After my daughter Alisa was murdered by Palestinian bus-bombers in 1995, I was invited to take part in numerous meetings and conference calls with Jewish leaders and Clinton administration officials, in which we raised the issue of American victims of Palestinian terror. Deif’s name came up often.
President Clinton visited Nachshon Wachsman’s grave during his March 1996 visit to Israel and personally promised Nachshon’ s parents that the U.S. would “make it a top priority” to capture Deif. Martin Indyk, who was then the U.S. ambassador to Israel, even put it in writing — in a letter to the Wachsman family on March 26, 1997, Indyk stated that “the arrest of Muhammed Deif (sic)…remains a high priority for the U.S. Government.”
It soon became clear, however, that those promises were just words. On December 19, 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took part in a conference call with American Jewish leaders, organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. An official of the National Council of Young Israel asked her why the Clinton administration did not insist that the Palestinian Authority hand over killers of Americans, such as Deif, who were being sheltered in PA territory. Shockingly, Albright replied that she did not know who Deif was.
Then, in the spring of 2000, Deif was within reach. Israel Television reported on May 14, 2000, that PA chairman Yasir Arafat had placed Deif in “protective detention…he was arrested for his own safety, to protect him from the Israeli Shin Bet security service.”
The Conference of Presidents publicly urged that “the United States pursue the extradition of Mohammed Deif, who is currently being held in ‘protective detention’ by the Palestinian Authority…We believe the extradition of Deif and his prosecution in this country will send a clear message of determination both in regard to the war against terrorism as well as the commitment to protect American citizens at home and abroad.”
President Clinton could have demanded that Arafat hand him over to the U.S. for prosecution. After all, Clinton was giving $500-million annually, as well as important political and diplomatic support. But Clinton did nothing–except make more empty promises. Three months later (August 25), Ha’aretz reported that in a meeting with American Jewish leaders, Clinton again pledged to arrest Deif.
Left free to continue terrorizing Israelis, Deif did so. In 2002, he became head of Hamas’s military arm, the Iz-a-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Today he is comfortably situated in one of the Hamas underground command bunkers, giving orders to fire rockets at Israel, while watching Secretary of State John Kerry demand that Israel cease firing at Hamas.
But it’s never too late to pursue justice.
Let’s start with some acknowledgement of past errors. Bill Clinton should admit that he was wrong to refrain from insisting on the extradition of Deif. The former president has been very candid about the fact that he failed to respond to the Rwanda genocide. He should be just as contrite about his failures concurring Hamas’s genocidal war against Israel.
The Conference of Presidents needs to speak out, too. Along with other groups, such as AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee, the Conference should demand that the extradition of Deif to the United States be included as one of the provisions of any ceasefire plan. Deif must stand trial, in America, for the murders of American Jews.
Most of all, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry need to make it unequivocally clear that they stand with Israel, and against Deif and Hamas. No more wrangling over funds that Israel needs for Iron Dome; no more statements implying that Israel and Hamas are on the same moral level; and, above all, no more pressure on Israel for one-sided ceasefires. Instead of handcuffing Israel in its war with Hamas, how about the U.S. committing itself to putting Deif in handcuffs?