On April 2, the Israeli military court at Ofer Base convicted Wa’al al-Arja of murdering my son Asher and grandson Yonatan. The murders were committed on Friday, September 23, 2011. On that day, Arja, behind the wheel of his taxi, and his companion, Ali Sa’adah, encountered Asher and Yonatan on the highway to Jerusalem, on their way to spend Shabbat with Asher’s wife, Yonatan’s mother.
During September 2011, Wa’al had developed and perfected his attack technique. He learned how to maneuver his vehicle very close to a victim’s car, and how to maximize his speed at the same time so as to propel a large rock toward his target. During his testimony in court, he remarked proudly that he was a professional driver.
On September 23, 2011, Wa’al and Ali sought victim number three for that the day.
It is said that in moments of extreme danger, one’s perception of time slows down. Events of just a few seconds play out in one’s consciousness, with the normally blurred details clearly visible. Asher no doubt noticed the yellow taxi in the opposite lane veering dangerously close to him and Yonatan.
When did Asher perceive the mortal danger? Did time slow down when he saw the large cement block at the taxi’s window or only an instant later, when it flew across the gap between the two vehicles? On September 28 we, Asher and Yonatan’s family, got up from sitting shiva. News of the arrests came to us a week later, before Yom Kippur. Arja, Sa’adah and four accomplices were arrested. My question at that time to those who brought the news was what terror organization was behind the murders? “It’s just a local group, no larger affiliations,” I was told.
When I went to meet with the prosecution weeks after the arrests, I asked the same question and got the same answer: a local group, no larger affiliations.
The reason I kept asking this question was that I think the mental capability to murder is a rare trait. It is a rare person that can select a weapon, develop a lethal technique, actually kill someone with it and then go on to try again.
Some societies put such people in prison once they reveal themselves, some put them to work. I felt the Palestinian Authority would opt for the latter.
Ali Sa’adah clearly demonstrated this rare mental trait. In 2006, he attempted to kill Jewish travelers with an improvised gun. He repeated his attempts at murder in the years afterwards with pipe bombs, cooking-gas canisters rigged as bombs, Molotov cocktails, and, finally, the combination of fast-moving cars and rocks. The other accomplices have similar terrorist resumes. Wa’al al-Arja recruited Sa’adah and the other four career terrorists and put them to work. Arja himself was reportedly a 10-year veteran of the PA security and intelligence services.
Some 14 months after Asher and Yonatan’s murders, I met the United States consul-general in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney, at the US Consulate at 18 Agron Street in Jerusalem. The compound is a walled oasis in the middle of the city. A flower-lined path rimmed a quiet courtyard before a beautiful villa. Parked tightly up against the door, a BMW waited. This setting appeared more a rich man’s pied-àterre than the US embassy to the Palestinians, which is the role of the Jerusalem consulate.
Once inside the villa, I walked down a high-ceilinged corridor and up a magnificent stone stairway, through towering arched stone entrance-ways, into a meeting room perhaps modeled on Mandate-era British sensibilities.
Sunlight came through the windows along one wall and bounced off the curved arches and high ceiling to pleasantly light a low table surrounded by cushioned armchairs.
There were four of us in the room, including myself, but Michael Ratney the US consul-general was not there yet. He soon strode in, long-legged, slim, in a well-cut suit. A servant brought in a tray laden with small cups of very hot coffee, silently served, and then pattered out. The large room was quiet for a second.
The aroma of the coffee was very pleasant. I asked if the US could confirm Arja’s PA affiliation at the time of the murders of Asher and Yonatan, or confirm that he had no PA affiliation. A response came in a letter from Ratney a month later. Ratney confirmed that Arja worked for the PA security services until 2007. The letter did not address Arja’s employment by the PA intelligence services from 2007 until the murders. It said nothing about those years at all. It was as if he had not worked for the PA from 2007 until his September 2011 spree – although the letter did not explicitly say that.
I wrote back to US Consul-General Ratney and asked him to clarify his letter. Did he really mean to say that Arja had not been working for the PA when he murdered Asher and Yonatan? Arja had had a career in the PA, the PA was and is funded to a substantial extent by the United States. A horrible, disquieting thought came into my mind: Did the money Arja said he received after he murdered Asher and Yonatan somehow come from the United States? US aid flows through two channels to the PA: overt and covert.
The overt channel leads to the PA security services, that is, police and paramilitary organizations. From 2001-2007, including the intifada years of 2001-2005 when Arja would have fought against Israel and internal opponents of Yasser Arafat, he wore the uniform of the PA security services and carried a 9 mm. pistol on his hip.
The covert channel flows to the PA secret police, “intelligence services” in PA-speak. The CIA reportedly supplies and manages this secret channel. After his arrest, Arja told his interrogators that he had been working for PA intelligence services at the time he murdered Asher and Yonatan.
The specific question of CIA assistance to the PA before and during that terror-filled month of September 2011 when Arja and his gang attempted to murder Jews, on average, nearly every day can only be answered by people inside the PA intelligence world. I think Michael Ratney has at least an ear inside that world.
My January letter to him included this request: “You and I cannot avert our eyes from the difficult questions raised by this relationship [the CIA and the PA]. These questions have to do with the sources of funds paid to al-Arja and with the training, coaching or encouragement he may have received….”
The consulate confirmed my letter had been received, and two weeks later confirmed that it would reply with a letter. I waited.
Weeks later, I called Ratney’s office and left a message. The next morning a political officer called me. We scheduled a meeting for March 25.
On March 24, the political officer contacted me to postpone the meeting.
“The letter isn’t through the system yet,” he said. We re-scheduled for March 28. The evening before, the political officer contacted me: “The letter isn’t through the system yet.” We re-scheduled for April 4.
April 4 came without another postponement. I figured the letter was through the system now.
Maybe it was, but if so, it wasn’t intended for my eyes. The BMW was parked at the villa in the flower-lined courtyard. The political officer walked me past the villa this time. No servant silently served hot coffee. In fact, I was offered nothing. No coffee, no letter.
Just this dictated statement: “We have looked into what you said in your letter about al-Arja’s affiliation and we have no evidence showing that.”
“What ‘we’ is the statement referring to,” I asked.
The political officer told me the “we” meant the Jerusalem consulate.
Did other agencies of the US government know if Arja worked for US-funded PA intelligence organizations? “We have looked into what you said in your letter about al-Arja’s affiliation and we have no evidence showing that.”
Those evasive 20 words became the mantra of our half-hour meeting.
The consulate refused to provide me with a written statement this time, even of those terse, evasive 20 words.
We left the meeting and walked back through the courtyard. I asked the political officer, “Could the money that the PA paid al-Arja after he reported that he’d murdered Asher and Yonatan have come from my US taxes?” I watched the man’s face. His eyes stayed focused straight ahead. He didn’t turn to look at me. He didn’t verbalize, but he did answer. As I finished my question, his lips twitched, and then quickly straightened. I don’t know for sure what that twitch meant, but I think it was the truth trying to get out.