On barren hilltop, Israeli settler vigilantism blurs into Jewish theocracy

A recent arson attack on a Palestinian village spurred a crackdown by authorities on what they call a small group of 'Jewish terrorists' among settler communities. Right-wing anger at government concessions to Palestinians appears to be growing. 

Majdi Mohammed/AP/File
A Palestinian inspects a house on July 31 after it was torched in a suspected attack by Jewish settlers, killing an 18-month-old Palestinian child, according to a Palestinian official from the area, at Duma village near the West Bank city of Nablus.

Clinging to a barren hillside, the “Baladim” outpost was little more than a solitary trailer, a farming tractor, a makeshift tent for shade, and a flock of goats.

But Israeli security authorities say Baladim and other hilltop outposts served as a base for a new generation of Jewish militants, disaffected youths who allegedly vandalized Holy Land churches and carried out a deadly arson attack in the nearby Palestinian village of Duma on July 31. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the attack, which killed Saad Dawabsha and his 18-month-old son Ali, as an act of “Jewish terrorism.”

In just a few hours last Thursday, the police and the army cleared the Baladim encampment and two other outposts nearby.  It was part of a weeks-long crackdown on so-called “price tag” vigilantism meant to punish both Palestinians and Israeli security forces for moves against the settlements. 

But now authorities are alleging that a hardened core of hilltop youths have adopted a strategy that goes beyond price-tag reprisals. They say this group, believed to have dozens of members, has drawn up a manifesto calling for a “revolt’’ against Israel’s “wicked” secular government and its replacement with a Jewish theocracy that would bring a religious redemption. 

Most Jewish settlers identify as mainstream religious Zionists and consider the hilltop rebels to be a group of teen dropouts who have drifted to the outposts where they absorb an extremist ideology.

"They are really a group of anarchists who are anti Zionists who don’t respect the rabbis and don’t respect the state, and distance themselves from Israeli authority,’’ says David Ha’ivri, a resident of the Jewish settlement of Tapuach and a former spokesman for the local settler council there. “It would be simplistic to call them extreme right wing.”

Experts on Jewish radicalism, however, argue that the hilltop hardliners likely have plenty of sympathizers and supporters, both in the Jewish settlements and among Israel’s Orthodox Jews.

“This is an outgrowth of religious Zionism,’’ says Mordechai Inbari, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. “This is an ideological movement that has mentors, a program, texts, they have many books they publish. It’s not just a matter of crazy kids looking for ways to express their violence. It has leaders, and it has a program for action.”

Security-first not tough enough

Both the experts and the mainstream settlers seem to agree that the vigilante attacks and their backers are driven in part by disillusionment with Israel’s government. While critics in the West assail Mr. Netanyahu for a security-first policy that allows little compromise with Palestinians, many far-right Israelis hold the opposite view. They point to too much lenience towards Palestinian militants and a failure to assert Israeli sovereignty in areas controlled by Arabs like the holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City. They also blame the Israeli establishment for razing settlements 10 years ago when the military pulled out of the Gaza Strip.

“If you have a state which succumbs all the time to the creation of the Palestinian Authority on land allotted to Israel, if you see homegrown terrorism popping up around you, and the Temple Mount off limits to Jews – if you see all this phenomena of weakness, there are going to be people who are unsatisfied, and are going to be more aggressive,’’ says Yishai Fleisher, a radio host at the Voice of Israel web-radio. 

What sets apart the hilltop vigilantes from mainstream settlers is that they make an additional argument: Israel’s government has become a hostile entity hopelessly corrupted by Western, non-Jewish political values.

Israel has a history of violent acts motivated by religious conviction among Jews. In the 1980s, a Jewish underground carried out attacks on Palestinian buses, university students, and mayors, and in the mid-1990s, religious opponents of Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinians took the law into their hands, most notably with the assassination of the Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir.

“One common denominator is that they [radicals] have some of the same spiritual authorities,’’ says Dan Ephron, the author of a forthcoming book on the Rabin assassination, “Killing a King.” Though there are no specific calls by rabbis for violence, "it’s enough for rabbis to talk about incendiary issues in the yeshivas."

No welcome for journalists

At the abandoned “Baladim” hilltop near Kochav HaShachar, a handful of outpost residents with oversized knit skullcaps and wild sidelocks remain, looking slightly bewildered. “Are you here to help? Are you from the settlement?” one asks. When this Monitor correspondent identifies as a reporter, the youth recoil. “I’m not giving information, interviews, or being photographed,’’ says another, and gives a strong menacing handshake.

Less than a mile away at Kochav Hashahcar, a religious Zionist settlement where some of the youths at Baladim grew up, residents said the outpost had moved several times before the recent eviction. Those who lived there were involved in goat herding and agriculture, they said. Neither residents nor the settlement spokeswoman were willing to discuss the outpost’s alleged role in the recent attacks.

An alleged hilltop document released by the Shin Ben lays out a “means of action” and recommends establishing small vigilante cells because “the chances of establishing an organized underground against this foreign rule are so big.’’ The document discusses the pros and cons of carrying out arson attacks on a mosque, Palestinian homes, and churches – which are considered places of idolatry.  

The strategy behind the attacks, according a separate “founding” manifesto released by the Shin Bet, was to target certain “vulnerable points” that would inflame the country and lead to the collapse of liberal democracy and the rise of a Jewish theocracy. No one has disputed the authenticity of the document. 

Limited prosecutions of vigilantism

So far, only a small handful of hilltop youths have been indicted for attacks on Christian sites or Palestinian villages. No one has been charged for the arson attack in Duma. However, authorities have imposed restraining orders and house arrests on settlers accused of being part of the radical fringe.

Yesh Din, a human rights group, says Israel has done little to prosecute perpetrators of vigilante violence. Before the arson in Duma, the organization handled 15 cases of house burnings, but zero indictments came out of it. 

Honeinu, a legal aid organization which represents hilltop youth arrested by Israeli legal authorities, says the allegations of Jewish terrorism have been inflated and that the government is rounding up “anyone who looks like a hilltop youth” at hilltops like Baladim and in the region around the nearby settlement of Shiloh. 

Despite the crackdown against Baladim and other outposts, observers say there are legal and political impediments to a wider campaign of arrests and indictments in terror cases involving Jews. Law enforcement officials lack the infrastructure, legal tools, and political backing that exists for counter terrorism against Arab groups, these observers say. 

“It will always be more interesting to deal with other security threats, rather than deal with administrative detention and restraining orders for Jewish terrorists,’’ wrote Yuval Diskin, a former Shin Bet Chief, on his Facebook page last month. “With a government based on right wing parties, a political and rabbinic lobby, it doesn’t make political sense either.”

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