JERUSALEM, Nov. 14 -- Four former chiefs of Israel's powerful domestic security service said in an interview published Friday that the government's actions and policies during the three-year-old Palestinian uprising have gravely damaged the country and its people.
The four, who variously headed the Shin Bet security agency from 1980 to 2000 under governments that spanned the political spectrum, said that Israel must end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that the government should recognize that no peace agreement can be reached without the involvement of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and that it must stop what one called the immoral treatment of Palestinians.
Palestinians examine part of the concrete barrier separating the West Bank town of Abu Dis from East Jerusalem.
(Andrea Comas -- Reuters)
"We must once and for all admit that there is another side, that it has feelings and that it is suffering, and that we are behaving disgracefully," said Avraham Shalom, who headed the security service from 1980 until 1986. "Yes, there is no other word for it: disgracefully. . . . We have turned into a people of petty fighters using the wrong tools."
The statements to Israel's largest-circulation Hebrew-language daily newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth, added to recent public criticism of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by Israeli political, military and civic leaders for his failure to stop terrorism or negotiate peace as the uprising enters its fourth year.
Members of the Sharon government said they would not comment directly on the statements.
"I don't want to add more fuel to this," said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "These, of all people, should have known this is the worst time to conduct public debate on these issues."
The official said creating the image that "Israel is falling apart at the seams" could prompt Palestinian organizations to "intensify terrorist activity."
The former security chiefs said they agreed to the two-hour interview -- the first time the four have ever sat down together -- out of "serious concern for the condition of the state of Israel," according to Carmi Gillon, who ran Shin Bet in 1995 and 1996.
Maj. Gen. Ami Ayalon, who headed the agency from 1996 until 2000 and is co-author of a peace petition signed by tens of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians, said: "We are taking sure and measured steps to a point where the state of Israel will no longer be a democracy and a home for the Jewish people."
Shin Bet is Israel's dominant domestic security and intelligence service, with primary responsibility for the country's anti-terrorism efforts. It often plans and directs armed forces operations that support its own activities, including raids into Palestinian towns and villages in search of alleged terrorists, assassinations of suspected militants and interrogation of suspects. The current Shin Bet chief, Avi Dichter, is one of Sharon's most trusted and influential advisers, according to administration officials.
The four former Shin Bet leaders said they recognized the contradictions between some of their actions as security chiefs and their opinions today.
"Why is it that everyone -- [Shin Bet] directors, chief of staff, former security personnel -- after a long service in security organizations become the advocates of reconciliation with the Palestinians? Because they were there." said Yaakov Perry, whose term as security chief between 1988 and 1995 covered the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada. "We know the material, the people in the field, and surprisingly, both sides."
The security chiefs denounced virtually every major military and political tactic of the Sharon administration, adding their voices to the dissent in Israel against the prime minister's handling of a conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 2,500 Palestinians and nearly 900 Israelis and foreigners.
In recent weeks, the country's top general has criticized Sharon's clampdown on Palestinians in the West Bank; active and reserve Air Force pilots have publicly declared the military's use of missiles and bombs to kill militants in civilian neighborhoods to be "immoral"; activists have initiated independent peace proposals; and opinion polls have indicated that faith in Sharon is plummeting.