The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
This is the second of four posts on The Trials of Rasmea Odeh.
Jerusalem's Supersol was crowded on Friday morning, February 21, 1969, as shoppers hurried to get ready for the coming Sabbath. At about 11:00 a.m., a bomb exploded near the meat counter, ripping through the shelves and ceiling and sending debris flying across the store. Two botany students were killed—immigrant roommates, from South Africa and Uruguay—who were buying supplies for a coming field trip. Dozens were injured, including an Auschwitz survivor and a U.N. attache.
Israel had already been on edge, following a series of bombings and international terror attacks, and the police were reasonably fearful that "private vengeance" might be carried out against Jerusalem's Palestinian population. Roadblocks were set up outside Palestinian neighborhoods, more or less successfully preventing angry mobs from attacking their Palestinian neighbors.
The police also proudly announced a series of "round-ups," taking about 150 Palestinians into custody for questioning. Odeh's supporters later portrayed these as arbitrary arrests, but in fact they were mostly short term detentions, with the individuals quickly released after interrogation. The Palestinians, of course, did not view the mass detentions as benign, but the Israelis ultimately only charged actual suspects, against whom there was indeed evidence.
It took only a few days for Israeli security officers to show up, in the middle of the night, at the Odeh home in al-Birah. Not only was Rasmea Odeh a known PFLP associate, she had also been ratted out by a co-conspirator who gave up her name, and others, under duress and probably torture. Bombmaking equipment—including timers, detonating cords, and gelignite—was recovered from Odeh's bedroom, as was a receipt from the Supersol.
Blindfolded, Odeh was taken to Jerusalem's Russian Compound, originally a 19th century hostel, known and feared by Palestinians as "Moskobiya" or, as Odeh put it, the "torture factory."
Odeh's interrogation was brutal, she was intermittently beaten, chained to a wall, and deprived of sleep. The Israeli authorities denied using such techniques at the time, but it was later determined by an Israeli commission, among others, that those methods were then indeed common in security interrogations. Odeh also claimed to have been sexually abused, an accusation for which there is no solid extrinsic evidence.
It did not take long for Odeh to confess. She initially claimed implausibly that she had acted alone, in an attempt to shield her comrades, but the Israelis didn't buy it. They were looking for the proverbial "ticking bomb," not trying simply to secure evidence for a conviction, so they continued the interrogation until Odeh gave up the names of both her accomplices and others in her PFLP network.
The true story, which was much later confirmed in documentary interviews on Jordanian television and the Arabic language memoirs of admitted participants in the operation, was that Odeh had visited the Supersol before the date of the operation, purchasing a tin of jam. Later, the conspirators gathered at Odeh's home—her other family members were away—where the explosives were assembled and concealed in the tin. Two of her comrades then returned to the supermarket and placed the tin back on a shelf, figuring that it would not be recognized as out of place. Odeh herself later went back to Jerusalem and planted another bomb at the British consulate, which exploded without harming anyone.
Odeh's prosecution extended over months, as she vainly attempted to suppress her confession in an Israeli procedure known as a "trial within a trial." Her motion was predictably denied, as interrogators' frequent resort to torture had not yet been publicly acknowledged and the security officials lied to the court. Even without the confession, however, there was significant evidence of Odeh's guilt, such as the ordinance and receipt discovered under her bed.
She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in January 1970.
The next post will be about Odeh's ten years in prison and eventual immigration to the United States.