Terrorist militia for a new Israel

September 3, 2015
Sarah Benton

Ynet and i24 on the failure of Israeli security, or educational, forces to curtail the violent racism of ‘hilltop youth’ or inculcate loyalty to the state in them. Plus in 2014 the UN warns of the rapid rise in settler attacks on Palestinians, AP.

Masked settler youth in Hebron, hilltop youth are often the culprits of “price-tag” attacks. Photo by Reuters

Initiatives to reform Jewish radicals falling short, critics charge

A new education ministry programme aims to rehabilitate hilltop youth while preventing the next attack; however, the program has experienced very little success.

By Associated Press / Ynet
August 30, 2015

The Israeli government initiative has a soothing biblical name, the Hebrew Shepherd, and a serious aim: to keep ultranationalist Jewish settler youths from turning to violence and attacking Palestinians and their property.

But the programme – which included plans for a summer camp and carpentry courses to keep the kids out of trouble – has foundered. Many settler youths have refused to co-operate after rumours spread that Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, which snoops on Jewish extremists, was involved.

It is but one example of Israel’s failure to rein in youths suspected of carrying out ultra-nationalist attacks. The deadliest such assault, a firebombing last month on a West Bank home, killed an 18-month-old toddler, Ali Dawabsheh, and his father, Saed, and critically wounded his mother and 4-year-old brother. A Star of David and “revenge” in Hebrew were sprayed on the torched home.

In the wake of the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged “zero tolerance” for what he called Jewish terrorism.

But there has been complicit tolerance of the phenomenon for years, say Palestinian leaders, former Israeli security officials and even some settlers. They blame holes in Israel’s juvenile welfare system, lax law enforcement, a lenient justice system and rabbis and Israeli leaders unwilling or unable to tackle the elusive young fundamentalists. Our emphasis

A main focus of the concern is the so-called “hilltop youth,” young people among a settler movement that sets up outposts not authorized by the Israeli government on West Bank hilltops – land the Palestinians claim for their hoped-for state.

“There is no serious adult, no individual today who says, ‘I am the person who will take responsibility,'” said Avia Azulay, 35, a hilltop settler, speaking from his spacious home in the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Shir Hadash.

A youth counsellor and former hilltop youth himself, Azulay joined the Hebrew Shepherd programme a year ago to try to help keep young extremists from the brink of violence, but resigned because he thought the Shin Bet’s alleged involvement undermined the young people’s trust.

After last month’s firebombing, Israel carried out arrest raids of hilltop outposts and jailed three Israeli settler activists in their early 20s for six months without charge, a measure used regularly against Palestinian detainees but rarely on Israelis. Israel has not yet found the culprits of the deadly attack.

Sarit Michaeli, B’Tselem

The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said despite the recent crackdown, Israel is unwilling to prosecute settlers suspected of crimes against Palestinians. In the past three years, the group said, Israeli civilians set fire to nine Palestinian homes in the West Bank and hurled a firebomb at a Palestinian taxi, but no one was charged.

“The government has created a climate of impunity with settlers,” said Sarit Michaeli of B’Tselem.

Israeli human rights group Yesh Din said less than 10 percent of police investigations into alleged Israeli crimes committed against Palestinians and their property from 2005-2014 resulted in indictments.

Israeli police defend their efforts to combat Israeli attacks against Palestinians, and say there has been a big jump in arrests and indictments since a special “nationalistic crimes” unit was created in 2013, though they declined to provide precise numbers.

Critics say influential settler rabbis have done little to publicly denounce the violent youths, and that Israeli leaders have embraced settler activists who support them. Netanyahu himself appeared in an election rally this year co-organized by hilltop youth supporter Daniella Weiss.

Recent arrests of young settler activists offer a peek into what the Shin Bet says is a fringe group suspected of arson attacks on Palestinian property in order to bring about religious “redemption.”

Moshe Orbach, who was charged with incitement to terrorism for writing “The Guide to Committing Price Tag Attacks”, also bounced around these outposts. He was slapped with a restraining order earlier this year barring him from entering the West Bank or Jerusalem, and was arrested last year in his parents’ house in Bnei Brak. Text from the Gay Courier, August 2015. Photo by Yariv Katz

One suspect, Moshe Orbach, is accused of writing a detailed instruction manual on how to set fire to mosques, churches and Palestinian homes. Entitled “Kingdom of Evil,” it instructs activists to form underground cells committed to “sanctifying God’s name” – and with members who know how “to keep silent in interrogations.”

The other two are Meir Ettinger, the 23-year-old grandson of the late Jewish ultra-nationalist Meir Kahane, whom the Shin Bet calls the ringleader of the group, and Eviatar Slonim, an activist in the hilltop settlements.

All three have been jailed without charge for six months, accused of affiliation with an extremist Jewish organization, an accusation they deny. Their so-called administrative detention is a tactic usually reserved for suspected Palestinian militants.

The Hebrew Shepherd initiative once set its sights on Ettinger as part of its efforts to encourage hilltop youth to learn a vocation, according to the settler website Hakol Hayehudi.

Speaking to the website, Ettinger said, “During the first meeting with the workers from the programme, I noticed how all their efforts were focused on career and money. This is fundamentally opposed to our values as Jews who work for the sake of the people of Israel.”

Menachem Ben Shachar, 38, a relative of Ettinger, said the outreach effort has been unsuccessful because it doesn’t address the youth’s anger with what they see as Israel’s ineffective responses to Palestinian attacks.

The hilltop outpost of Hazon David. Photo from Hazon David Synagogue

“Every time Israel fails in its real mission – defending the people of Israel – it creates a few more frustrated youths. There is no organization that can come afterward and try to extinguish the burning flame in the hearts of these youths,” Ben Shachar said in an email exchange with The Associated Press.

Israel’s Education Ministry says it spearheaded the Hebrew Shepherd initiative in 2013 to “offer an educational-welfare rehabilitative response to young at-risk boys and girls” in the West Bank settlement areas “as part of systemic efforts to eradicate the phenomenon of nationalist crime,” according to a ministry document leaked to Israeli media.

In the document, the ministry’s director general asked the Shin Bet and other government bodies to participate in the programme’s steering committee.

Hebrew Shepherd director Roee Simon declined a request for an interview, as did the Shin Bet. The Education Ministry also refused to comment despite repeated requests.

Although he left the programme, Azulay says he still tries to engage hilltop youth. Three nights a week, the burly man with a bushy black beard packs his dusty red sedan with snacks and heads to the hills to meet with them. His background as a former hilltop youth, along with his firm handshake and contemporary Hebrew slang, give him credibility.

Azulay said the majority of the approximately 1,000 hilltop youth are middle-school and high-school dropouts ranging in age from 14 to 20 from cities within Israel, not the West Bank. Adverse to authority, they are drawn to the defiant spirit of the isolated West Bank hilltops.

Squatting on West Bank land to claim it as Jewish, they are furious with Israel’s response to Palestinian attacks, Azulay said, leading some to take vigilante action against their Palestinian neighbours.

When the time comes for compulsory military service – their ticket into mainstream Israeli society – the army rejects them as too dangerous. Because social workers from one municipal area are not permitted to handle youth from another area, runaways in the West Bank fall through the cracks of the welfare system, Azulay said. He said settler rabbis are afraid to take them under their wing for fear of being accused of backing the violence.

Azulay said he tries to persuade the teens to stay away from vigilante violence so they don’t ruin their chances of enlisting into the army. “Go be a pilot, drop a half-ton bomb on a group of terrorists,” he said he tells the youths.

Another programme piloted by a local settler council tries to rehabilitate hilltop youths by helping them pass matriculation exams and persuading the army to enlist them. It has shown some success at one hilltop outpost and is being expanded to another settlement.

An official in the Israeli prime minister’s office said in the last five years, Israel beefed up its intelligence, police and law enforcement resources to deal with Jewish extremism. “We are augmenting our efforts because we see this as a challenge to our democracy,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

But former Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin said political will and public pressure are lacking in the battle to uproot Jewish extremism.

“Violent extremism is a social phenomenon with deep roots. Whoever thinks the Shin Bet, the military or the police can deal with it is mistaken,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Professor Yaron Ezrahi delivers a Mosse lecture in November 2011 on ‘Radical nationalism against democratic citizenship in Israel’

A monster “Golem” turning on its creator?

The “Hilltop Youth” terrify even the far right. They don’t want a bigger Israel – they want a different one

By Lili Galili, i24
August 09, 2015

There is something romantic in the term “Hilltop Youth”. It connotes nature and youthful energy. But there is nothing romantic in that group of far-right violent youngsters. They pose an imminent threat to their neighbours in the Palestinian villages near the West Bank hilltops where they reside, and to Israeli democracy. They are the main suspects in the killing of an 18-month-old Palestinian and his father, whose home they set on fire ten days ago. They’re also the main suspects in the arson of one of the world’s most sacred churches, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. International outrage at both brutal acts have turned them from a local menace to a major Middle East threat.

It’s not the first time these youths have set fire to churches and Palestinian houses; they’ve done it before, leaving behind their trademark graffiti “”price tag”. It’s not the first time they undermine Israeli democracy, either, having already attacked and harassed Israeli soldiers trying to impose order in the West Bank. Yet the establishment has been lenient in its dealings with those they refer to as “rotten apples.” Not anymore. The system has launched all-out war against the monster they allowed to grow in its midst.

Their tag is ‘vengeance’, their target a Palestinian house in Hebron. Photo ActiveStills.

The outrage on the left was expected. That of the right indicates fright. Its representatives sound horrified, as if seeing the “Golem” – the monster – turning on its creator, terrified of being identified with its acts. “I have to admit we share some responsibility in the creation of the slippery road that led to this,” concedes Yehuda Etzion, a prominent member of a 1980s Jewish terrorist organization that blew up Palestinian officials and planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Their jail sentences were relatively short and all were granted presidential pardons. “I still believe those Palestinian officials we acted against were the ‘head of the snake,’” Etzion tells i24news; “but random attacks on Palestinians is a different story. I do recognize my own part in the story, but they are different. We would never think of acting against Israeli soldiers or against the symbols of statehood. They do, they are anarchists… But yes, I have to agree – it’s quite probable they use us as a role model. We may be contributing to this by proxy.”

These few dozen youngsters are a strange mix, often associated with Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and its uprooting of thousands of Jewish settlers. The older group members actively opposed the evacuation 10 years ago, the younger ones – now teenagers – grew up on the myth of resistance and the loss of faith in the state by which they felt betrayed. The state, its army, its government – all became the enemy, legitimate targets to topple and undermine in order to build a better state – the Biblically named Kingdom of Judea.

Settlements’ leader Pinchas Wallerstein. Photo by Gil Yohanan / Ynet

Some of the so-called hilltop youngsters are school dropouts, estranged from their families, suspicious of even those closest to them. They don’t mingle with residents of recognized settlements, accept no authority, not even of the most radical far-right rabbis. They are so cut off from any establishment that it’s impossible to reach out to them. “They all have big kippas and long sideburns, but no God in their heart,” says Pinchas Wallerstein, one the founders of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful), the right-wing movement with a fundamentalist streak, founded in 1975, committed to establishing Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In a lengthy conversation with i24news, Wallerstein rejects the notion that hilltop youth are the 2015 version of 1975 Gush Emunim. “I see no link,” claims Wallerstein; “I can quote my wife who said about them – ‘now we have our own La Familia’. But we certainly have to abolish this dangerous phenomenon. We fought against the evacuation of Gaza settlements within the limits of legitimacy. Suggestions that we act against the law were rejected. We acted as a collective. They act as individuals, anarchists, with no God and no rabbinical authority. From their point of view, we, the leaders of the settlement movement, failed them. We are the enemy as well.”

One thing is certain: these youths are clever. They move from location to location without leaving a trace, exchange smartphones, do not answer interrogators when they are detained.

“People their age tend to test the limits; unfortunately, they tend to test their limits on the weakest and most helpless people (the Palestinians),” says Yaron Ezrahi, a professor of political science and one of the most prominent thinkers of the Israeli left. Ezrahi believes the right wing is horrified by this phenomenon that threatens the legitimacy of the whole settlement enterprise. “If the youth are the future – that future is anarchist and violent. Part of the success of the settlement movement is based on cohesive solidarity of a minority; hilltop youth might cause a split in that solidarity and even tear it apart. The fact that they are a small group is irrelevant. It’s not about size; it’s about lack of boundaries. This tiny minority could change reality in Israel and all over the world. They romanticize violence and subversion.”

Indeed they do. Nurtured by the far right and frustrated by it, disappointed with the state and their own rabbinical system, tending to delinquency – according to academics who study them, they are set to change the reality they detest. If the initial plan was to settle illegally in the West Bank, the new plan goes way beyond this. They don’t want a bigger Land of Israel; they want a different one. And they have a plan.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of “The Million that Changed the Middle East.”

UN says pace of Israeli settler attacks up 4-fold

Tensions in West Bank between settlers and Palestinians reach new highs. ‘Price tag’ attacks and Palestinian security incidents continue to plague IDF

By Associated Press / Ynet
January 15, 2014

Just as news broke of an additional ‘price tag’ attack on a West Bank mosque, UN figures claimed that the annual rate of settler attacks has almost quadrupled in eight years.

According to the UN, Israeli security forces have largely failed to stem the attacks in which assailants cut down trees, deface mosques and beat Palestinian farmers.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly denounced such attacks – Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon branded them “outright terrorism” just last week – and the military says soldiers are under strict orders to stop them.

Alleged ‘price tag’ attack in wake of Qusra incident (Photo: Rabbis for Human Rights)
Alleged ‘price tag’ attack in wake of Qusra incident (Photo: Rabbis for Human Rights)

Still, critics say the Israeli governments have often been reluctant to confront settlers, even those seen as a hard-line fringe.

“There is not enough pressure from the prime minister, the defence minister, the interior minister to prevent this,” said Gadi Zohar, a former senior army commander in the West Bank.

A dramatic incident near the Palestinian farming village of Qusra last week highlighted the potential of such attacks to escalate and jeopardize fragile US-led peace efforts, in which settlers exact a ‘price tag’ on Palestinians in response to army actions against any of dozens of West Bank settlement outposts.

Last week’s events began when troops uprooted olive trees planted on private Palestinian land by settlers from the Esh Kodesh outpost.

Later that day, about 20 Israelis moved toward nearby villages, including Qusra. Palestinians said the settlers damaged olive trees, and were caught by villagers after a stone-throwing clash and held by them for more than two hours before being handed over to the IDF .

Footage of the settlers surrounded by an angry crowd led the TV news in Israel that day, with commentators saying serious bloodshed was averted by Palestinians who shielded the settlers.

Seven Israelis were questioned and placed under house arrest, police said. Ya’alon warned he would show zero tolerance, but Palestinians are sceptical.

Settlers killed 18 sheep

So far, there have been at least two cases of vandalism in apparent response to the Qusra incident. On Wednesday, residents of a village in the area reported that the door of a mosque was set on fire and some of the carpet was burned. Graffiti read, “Blood for blood, Qusra.”

Settlers have damaged hundreds of trees in Qusra, killed 18 sheep, torched six cars and set fire to a mosque in dozens of attacks, said Mayor Abdel Azim Wadi. The village has lost half its lands to settlements.

The mayor said Israeli soldiers either stand by during settler attacks or fire tear gas, rubber bullets and occasionally live rounds at Palestinians if the attacks escalate into stone-throwing clashes. A Qusra man was killed by army fire and dozens were wounded by settlers and soldiers, he said.

‘Hill-top youth’ settlers who entered Palestinian village (Photo: Rabbis for Human Rights)
‘Hill-top youth’ settlers who entered Palestinian village (Photo: Rabbis for Human Rights)

Palestinians say ‘price tag’ is part of Israel’s policy of control over the West Bank. They note that Israel has been providing practical support for outposts even though they were set up without formal government permission.

“Who gives them water, electricity, who gives them security, and paves their streets?” said Qusra resident Abdel Hakim Odeh, referring to the government’s policy toward the outposts. “These gangs are used by the government against the Palestinians.”

Col. Eran Makov, deputy commander of an IDF division in the West Bank, said soldiers have clear orders to stop any violence between civilians in the territory. “The policy of the IDF… is to interrupt and stop every incident when a person attacks another person,” Makov said.

Soldiers aren’t policeman

He said soldiers can’t be everywhere at once to block attacks and that it’s sometimes difficult to respond rapidly in rocky terrain. In last week’s incident, soldiers responded within 15 minutes, he said.

Makov acknowledged that young conscripts aren’t necessarily trained for policing jobs, but that those who fail to intervene face disciplinary action. The army is still looking into a Palestinian amateur video that appears to show soldiers watching as nearby settlers throw stones at Palestinians, he said.

Indictments were only filed in 8.5 percent of 825 completed police investigations monitored by the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din. In most cases, investigators failed to locate suspects or collect enough evidence, Yesh Din said.

‘Hill-top youth’ rescued by IDF (Photo: Rabbis for Human rights)
‘Hill-top youth’ rescued by IDF (Photo: Rabbis for Human rights)

In Qusra and two neighboring villages, residents filed 21 police complaints between 2011 and 2013, but none led to indictments so far, said Yesh Din. Twelve cases were closed, including a February shooting in which 28-year-old Hilmi Hassan was seriously wounded in a confrontation with settlers.

Yesh Din said police were given photos of settlers who participated in the incident.

Hassan said a settler shot him in the stomach from about 20 meters (yards) away. Hassan was flown by helicopter to an Israeli hospital. There, police questioned him, but Hassan refused to sign a statement, fearing officers were trying to portray him as the instigator.

“If a settler was shot, they would have imposed curfew on the entire area, but when a Palestinian like me is shot, they accuse him of provoking the settlers,” said Hassan.

Settler council opposes violence
Police did not provide arrest statistics or comment on the Hassan case.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police have formed special units to deal with “price tag” attacks. A West Bank unit with 30 officers began working a year ago, focusing on surveillance, intelligence gathering and undercover operations, he said.

The army said Palestinian complaints about settler attacks during the annual olive harvest dropped by half, to 20, from 2012 to 2013.

Despite such efforts, UN figures show a steady rise in the number of settler attacks.

There have been 2,100 such attacks since 2006, the year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) started counting. The annual totals are up from 115 in 2006 to 399 in 2013.

In the past eight years, 10 Palestinians were killed by settlers, and 29 settlers were killed by Palestinians, according to OCHA figures. More than 1,700 Palestinians were injured by settlers or by troops in clashes, while 324 settlers and 37 soldiers were hurt by Palestinians in confrontations.

The ‘price tag’ campaign first made headlines in 2008, three years after Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank.

Some settlers devised ‘price tag’ to deter Israeli authorities from taking down more settlements, particularly the outposts that are home to ‘hilltop youth,’ the most radical of the settlers.

Since then, settlers have routinely attacked Palestinian villages whenever the army moves against an outpost. Vandals have broadened their targets to churches, mosques and dovish groups in Israel, as well as Israeli military bases.

The Yesha Council, an umbrella for more than 550,000 settlers, said it opposes violence and has distanced itself from price tag.

Settler leaders portray the vandals as hotheads, but Zohar and other retired security officers said in a report that the groups are organized, even if there is no apparent central leadership.

Zohar said it’s not clear if the events in Qusra will prompt a change.

“I don’t think there’s a problem of understanding (the situation),” he said. “There is a problem of (making) a decision.”

© Copyright JFJFP 2022