Israel commemorates 15th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s death

Over 20,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square overnight to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In the spot where Rabin was shot dead, President Shimon Peres told the crowd those favouring peace would prevail but blame Arabs for the delays. “There are still those that wish to remove the Jews from Israel and that these people do not make the way to peace any easier,” he said. “The road to peace is long and difficult, and our neighbours are not helping us, but we will not be denied the hope for peace nor from attaining it”.

It wasn’t a neighbour that killed Rabin, it was one of the family. Rabin was murdered after a peace rally on 4 November 1995. His assassin was Yigal Amir, an ultra-nationalist Jewish extremist who opposed trading land to the Palestinians for peace. Amir was sentenced to life in prison. Many branded Rabin a traitor for pursuing the Oslo Accords and some fringe extremists were calling for his death.

The first native-born Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin was born in Jerusalem in 1922 of a Ukrainian-Belarusian family. Rabin grew up in a spirit of activism and his parents were avid volunteers. After attending the School for Workers’ Children, Rabin spent two years at a kibbutz before enrolling in the Kadoorie Agricultural School, at the foot of Mount Tabor. The school was surrounded by Arab villages, and daily routine included defence training and guard duty. At Kadoorie, Rabin joined the Haganah, the Zionist military organisation.During the war Rabin served as a scout for Allied units invading Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French Army. But his friendship with Britain ended in 1945 when his battalion attempted to free 200 Jews from a British internment camp near Haifa. He was arrested in June 1946 and served five months in prison. In the Israeli war of independence Rabin safeguarded convoys of food, ammunition and medical supplies to beleaguered Jerusalem. He was also chief operations officer in the campaign to drive Egyptian and Jordanian forces from the Negev. Rabin met Nasser, then an Egyptian army officer, where they discussed the military situation and shared a bowl of fruit.

Rabin rose to become the second ranking officer in the IDF. He was chief of staff during the Six Days War and he recommended a pre-emptive strike. He left the armed forces after Israel’s victory in 1967 and served as ambassador to Washington for five years. He joined the Labour Party and was appointed minister of labour in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s 1973 government.

Protests over the poor preparation in the Yom Kippur war forced Meir’s resignation and Rabin was elected head of the Labour Party, and prime minister. His first term of office was dominated by negotiations with Egypt and Syria, mediated by Kissinger. Rabin authorised the attack on hijackers at Entebbe in Uganda in 1976 but was forced to resign a year later over reports his wife had a secret US bank account.

He returned in 1984 as Defence Minister in a new unity government. He held the post for six years and he disentangled the IDF from the disastrous 1982 invasion of Lebanon. After the collapse of the unity government, Rabin became Labor leader again and won the 1992 election with the help of minor parties. His government made advances in the peace process, signing the Oslo Accords with Arafat’s PLO in 1993 and the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace in 1994. He was also planning to concede the Golan Heights to Syria. Rabin, Shimon Peres and Arafat were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 “for their efforts to create peace in the Middle East”.

His efforts were lauded overseas but detested by many at home. Far-right law student Yigal Amir was deeply unhappy with Rabin’s peace moves. Amir appealed to the traditional Jewish legal concept of din rodef (law of the pursuer) to justify the murder. The tradition comes from the Talmud allowing a bystander to kill someone who is pursuing another with the intention of murder. Amir claimed din rodef applied because Rabin’s peace plans were endangering Jewish lives.

On 4 November 1995, Rabin attended a Tel Aviv peace rally in Kings of Israel Square (now Rabin Square). When it ended Rabin walked down the city hall steps towards the open door of his car. Amir fired three shots with a semi-automatic weapon. Two bullets struck Rabin and a third injured a bodyguard. Rabin was pronounced dead 40 minutes later at Tel Aviv Medical Centre.

While Rabin’s death was a huge shock and embarrassment for Israel, his Labour Party did not benefit. Hardliner Binyamin Netanyahu was a surprise winner of the 1996 Prime Ministerial election. He set Israel on a path of conflict it has yet to emerge from. In the 15 years since Rabin’s death, no Israeli leader has come close in reaching out beyond the pain of its history to confront the reality of Israel’s precarious geography.

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