For years extremist Jewish settlers have targeted Palestinians in retaliation for Israeli government efforts to curtail settlement growth, typically receiving only light punishment. But this week they turned on the soldiers charged with protecting them – and they may have gone too far.
On Tuesday, residents of the settlement Yitzhar and other sympathizers attacked a nearby Israel Defense Forces encampment staffed by reservists, destroying their living quarters. Condemnation has been swift and strident: Current and former government officials have called for the attackers to be labeled terrorists and rounded up. The overarching sentiment is that Israel's so-called "price tag" settlers are out of control.
"What is going on in the territories is Jewish terror," Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet, told Yediot Ahronot. "All of the other definitions coming from the prime minister, from the ministers, or the president — 'hate crime,' ‘bad weeds,' and such — are meaningless. Laundered words. And until they do this, they won’t solve the problem."
This isn't the first time that vigilante settlers, who use the term "price tag" for their revenge attacks on Palestinians in response to Israeli efforts to curtail settlements, have attacked IDF targets. But they have never lashed out at guardposts of their own settlements, nor at reservists, who are seen by Israelis as sacrificing work and family for the state.
Security experts blame Israel's army, police, and government for yielding to the vigilante settlers for years, which emboldened them to risk igniting widespread Palestinian unrest.
"If such an incident had occurred in an Arab village, the IDF would go from house to house, search for illegal weapons, and try to arrest the law breakers," wrote Alex Fishman, a defense analyst in the daily Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "Now the army is slightly annoying the residents leaving the settlement, checking papers, asking questions. The police made an arrest. That’s nothing."
Roused from sleep
The IDF encampment sits on an isolated plateau between the hilltop settlement of Yitzhar and two Palestinian villages in the valley below. On Tuesday morning, dozens of settlers roused the reservist soldiers from sleep and told them stand down. They proceeded to destroy a tent, a latrine, and a gas heating installation.
Though an official statement from the settlement stopped short of justifying the attack, it accused the government of engaging in "collective punishment" against residents in retaliation for the vandalism of a military jeep. Yitzhar residents say the assault was a way to protest the destruction of several mobile homes in the settlement's various unauthorized outposts within the last week. In the days before Tuesday's attack, settlers also punctured the tires of IDF vehicles.
"It’s a time bomb waiting to happen," says Oren Rosenfeld, an Israeli film producer who has spent years documenting the price tag activists. "It was more of a message: 'This tent is a symbol of you being here and we’re not going to have it.' The army says that they are there to protect them from the Arabs, but [price tag activists] think they’re there to protect the Arabs from them."
On Wednesday, Israeli police officers manned a makeshift checkpoint at the highway turnoff for Yitzhar and stopped motorists for identification – an effort that bore a resemblance to security measures taken against the Palestinians. It led to at least six arrests for suspected involvement in the assault on the IDF base, according to a police spokesperson.
"We have to call this by its name. Anyone who attacks IDF soldiers and the Border Police is a terrorist in every sense," said Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich, who, in an interview with Israel Radio, said the government needs to use the same tactics against the vigilantes that it uses against Palestinians. "We have to remove the gloves."
Vigilante settlers have cut down Palestinians' olive trees, scrawled graffiti on mosques, vandalized cars and even occasionally torched homes. Those accused in such attacks, including some from Yitzhar, have been issued restraining orders that ban them from the West Bank on the grounds they could incite violence and undermine security.
Avi Dichter, another ex-Shin Bet director, told Yediot Ahronot that Israel’s legal system is too "forgiving" of the settlers and punishment is a "joke." Others are calling for the use of administrative detention, a controversial order currently used only on Palestinians and which allows security authorities to hold suspects without immediate trial in order to aid an investigation or prevent an immediate threat.
Nestled in the mountains south of Nablus, Yitzhar has long been a hub for religious radical settlers, many of whom are followers of rabbis who see the Israeli state as morally corrupt because its legal system is not based on Jewish law. Distrust of the government and IDF is widespread and deepening.
"Jews love Jews"
The education ministry cut off funding for Yitzhar's yeshiva, a Jewish religious school, after rabbis teaching there were accused of fomenting violence against nearby Arab villages. Teenage boys with overgrown hair sidelocks and large loosely knit skullcaps, signs of religious devotion, wander the streets with T-shirts reading "Jews love Jews."
Residents believe they are entitled to squat on the surrounding hilltops, regardless of government authorization. Hilltop youths say the outposts are littered with debris from mobile homes destroyed by the Israeli government. Once the demolition is over, they always rebuild.
Standing alongside the wreckage of his brother Hillel’s mobile home, Yonatan Malachi, an outpost resident for 12 years, says the IDF made an example of Yitzhar for political gain.
"Why did they do it at Yitzhar? They wanted to make some noise. They wanted to show that there are evacuations and that they are still working for peace with the Palestinians."