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Is the US guilty of putting alliance with Israel over justice in 36-year murder case?

Palestinian-American civil rights activist Alex Odeh [Twitter]
Palestinian-American civil rights activist Alex Odeh [Twitter]

Renewed interest in the murder of Palestinian-American civil rights activist, Alex Odeh, has fuelled speculations that the US-Israel alliance has blocked justice and hindered the criminal investigation into the killing. No one has been formally arrested for the murder of Odeh, despite strong leads indicating that his killers were three members of the terrorist group, the Jewish Defence League (JDL).

Before his untimely death in October 1985, Odeh was on course to becoming a prominent figure within the Palestinian American community. Born to a Christian Palestinian family in 1944 in the West Bank village of Jifna, near Ramallah, Odeh immigrated to the US in 1972, where he served as West Coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). The group was formed in 1980 to combat anti-Arab stereotypes in the US media while promoting balanced reporting on Middle Eastern affairs.

On the morning of his murder, Odeh arrived at his office at the ADC headquarters in Santa Ana, California, oblivious to the pipe bomb planted by his killers which was set to explode as soon as opened the door. He was fatally wounded by the blast and died several hours later at a nearby hospital.

Though no one had been formally charged, three people, all suspected of being members of the JDL, an extremist group founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane who the FBI believes carried out a series of bombings that year, have been strongly connected with Odeh's murder. They are Robert Manning, Baruch Ben-Yosef (born Andy Green) and Israel Fuchs (formerly known as Keith Fuchs).

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Manning has been serving a life sentence in the US, after being extradited from Israel in 1993 for planting a nail-bomb that killed a Manhattan Beach secretary in 1980. Apparently, the far-right in Israel see him as a folk hero. Ben-Yosef and Fuchs, on the other hand, fled America for Israel some months after the terrorist bombing which killed Odeh. Both are said to be living openly in an illegal Jewish-only settlement in the occupied West Bank.

The failure to apprehend Odeh's killers is symptomatic of the negligence shown by US officials towards the security of Palestinian Americans during a period of heightened fear in the 80s. The JDL regularly terrorised them using threats and intimidation. Their appeals for help fell on deaf ears. The FBI is said to have been more interested in harassing Palestinian Americans than combatting the threat of violent attacks from Jewish terrorist groups.

"I remember going to see the FBI director in early 1985," ADC founder and friend of Odeh, James Zogby is reported saying in the Haaretz. "I brought more than 100 affidavits from folks in that area complaining about FBI harassment: going to their jobs, talking to their neighbours; there was a whole sweep going on at that point about Palestinian activism in the United States."

Zogby, who later found the Arab American Institute, recalls how he had brought with him a dozen or so affidavits, three of which were from Odeh, complaining about the threats. "I said to the [FBI] Director, 'Why do you spend so many resources violating our rights, and so little protecting our rights?' They kind of dismissed it, and then, a while later, Alex was blown up."

While details of Odeh's murder and the names of potential suspects have been known for decades, no formal investigations were launched. However, recent reporting marking the anniversary of Odeh's murder and a renewed call for action in the US Congress to find his killers has revived the case. President Joe Biden's remarks about fighting domestic far-right terrorists have also fuelled optimism that, finally, after more than three decades, Odeh's killers may be brought to justice.

Pressing for answers in Congress, Senator Dick Durbin released a letter he had sent to the Director of the FBI where he insisted on re-opening the case. "This heinous case of domestic terrorism must be zealously investigated and finally resolved," demanded Durbin, who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "In order to preserve the rule of law and deter future would-be attackers, the terrorists who murdered Alex Odeh must not escape accountability."

The ADC applauded Durbin for his support in reviving the case. "We welcome any and all help from Members of Congress to raise the profile of this heinous assassination and look forward to working with Sen. Durbin and the rest of the Senate Judiciary Committee's staff as we move forward," said the ADC.

Durbin's letter to the FBI calling to intensify efforts, citing details from an investigative article in the Los Angeles Times by Gabriel San Roman who has been reporting on the Odeh murder for more than a decade. Roman's article contained revelations about the case which prompted speculation in the Haaretz newspaper that the US-Israel alliance may have hindered a formal investigation and blocked justice.

In his report detailing new revelations on the case, Roman cites Police Lt. Hugh Mooney, who was assigned to manage the crime scene following the murder of Odeh. Mooney recalls how FBI agents and a couple of LAPD Joint Terrorism Task Force arrived in a helicopter and landed near the crime scene. According to Mooney, they were chasing Fuchs and Manning. Mooney also disclosed details of a separate police voice report of the assassination identifying Manning, Fuchs and Ben-Yosef. A month after Odeh's murder, FBI spokesman, Leon Bonner, publicly attributed the attack to the JDL — a claim that disappeared from all future comments made by the Agency.

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Mooney's recollections mark the first time that the three people widely thought to have been responsible for carrying out the terrorist attack that killed Odeh were named by a law enforcement official involved in the case.

Further incriminating details were disclosed by Mooney. In 1996, he recalls travelling to the FBI's Los Angeles office for an hour-long meeting about the Odeh case. Indicating that US officials know who the killers were, Mooney informed Roman that the FBI was trying to surveil Fuchs and Ben-Yosef in Israel due to a lack of cooperation from the Shin Bet security service and the Israeli government.

The FBI investigation, however, hit a brick wall following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in November 1995 by an Israeli right-wing extremist. The political calculus had changed following the murder, which prompted US State Department officials to curtail the FBI's efforts. Apparently, they gave a big lecture about international relations and how it was more important to preserve US interest. "Politics trumped detective work," Mooney said.

"Did this case face obstacles from the State Department?" Roman asks rhetorically. "Was there a critical lack of cooperation on behalf of the Israeli government? Is there anything in extradition treaties that basically forbade Manning from being indicted in connection with the Odeh bombing? Is there anything in the extradition treaty between the US and Israel that's getting in the way of bringing over Ben-Yosef and Fuchs?"

These are important questions, which anyone interested in the rule of law should seek answers to. Maybe the Biden administration can succeed where every previous US administration has failed when it comes to Odeh: Put justice for its citizens above its alliance with Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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