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Israel steps up efforts to confront Jewish extremist violence against Palestinians in the West Bank

Feb 9, 2022 | Ahron Shapiro

A car torched by the Hilltop Youth smoulders near the Palestinian village of Burin on January 21, 2022.
A car torched by the Hilltop Youth smoulders near the Palestinian village of Burin on January 21, 2022.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and key members of his unity Government have vowed to tackle an apparent spike in violence against West Bank Palestinians by masked Jewish extremists – many of them associated with illegal settlement outposts manned by zealots known as the “Hilltop Youth”.

Such attacks have come to be known as “settler violence”, although that may not be completely accurate, as authorities say some of the perpetrators don’t even reside in the West Bank at all. Rather, they are delinquent Israeli youth who frequent the West Bank with the intent to cause trouble, as Dvir Kariv, an Israeli expert on the issue of Jewish terrorism, told the Times of Israel on December 15.

“They’re not all settlers or the children of settlers. There are many who come from inside the Green Line,” said Dvir Kariv, a former Shin Bet commander who specialized in tracking Jewish terror. “Many have problems at home, they struggle academically, and they drop out of whatever school or framework they were in — and get caught up on the hilltops.”

Still, the term “settler violence” is appropriate for the purposes of this blog if for no other reason than when such attacks occur, they are overwhelmingly launched from illegal settlement outposts and makeshift farms.

 

From small numbers come big problems

The Hilltop Youth has posed a stubborn problem for many years, even as the names and faces of those involved in this loosely bonded, antisocial brood have been constantly changing.

What are the Hilltop Youth exactly and how numerous are they?

Journalist Ben Caspit, reporting for Al-Monitor in 2015 after a Palestinian family in the village of Duma was killed in an arson attack perpetrated by members of the Hilltop Youth, quoted an anonymous IDF source who had this to say about the group:

“We are talking about no more than a few dozen young people, at most, who have cut themselves off from the rest of the state. They live in the wild, break the law and believe that they must re-establish the ancient Kingdom of Israel and Judea. They also have a very disparaging attitude toward Zionism.”

A Ha’aretz report by Yotam Berger in 2017 relied on sources close to Israel’s internal security agency Shin Bet to paint a picture of an “amorphous” group that “[doesn’t] function as a coordinated, hierarchical organization” but that still has managed to stubbornly replenish its numbers even as its violent activists are culled through vigorous law enforcement.

More recently, in October 2019, Ha’aretz military correspondent Amos Harel reported little had changed in terms of numbers:

The army estimates that the hard core of hilltop youth numbers no more than 200 activists, many of them minors. A quarter of them are considered violent, and 10 percent have been marked as people who could physically attack security personnel.

Harel’s report claimed, with justification, that the Hilltop Youth elicit some sympathy from some far-right settlers and more radical settlements that, at the very least, downplay the seriousness of the problem.

At the same time – and this is a point left out of most reports on the issue – it should be recognised that many settlers strongly oppose violent Hilltop Youth and don’t want them in their communities.

Experts say that the youths involved tend to spend less time loitering in the West Bank and engaging in illegal acts once they’ve moved on to employment, marriage and fatherhood, eventually abandoning the lifestyle entirely.

 

The current wave of violent incidents against Palestinians and left-wing activists

While it would be difficult to set an exact starting point for the latest wave of Hilltop Youth violence, Harel filed a story in November 2021 around the olive harvesting season in the West Bank, speculating that lingering anger over the death of one of the Hilltop Youth in a car accident while being pursued by police in December 2020 may be contributing to the increase in attacks.

Harel identified a couple of catch-22s that contribute to the settler violence problem: Terror attacks on settlers are often the impetus for revenge attacks on Palestinians which may encourage more Palestinian terror; also, crackdowns on Hilltop Youth seem to have only a temporary effect and tend to be followed by a sympathetic increase in the number of youths drawn to the outposts and the radical ideology.

The latest wave of violence by the Hilltop Youth sparked condemnation by Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev in mid-December which was seen as controversial by some right-wing Israelis who felt it insulted the entire settlement community – which in turn led to a conciliatory statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Veteran Jerusalem Post writer Susan Hattis-Rolef provides a useful recap of the incident in her column from December 26.

Sporadic attacks from masked Jewish extremists persisted into January, including a particularly bloody attack on Palestinians and left-wing Jewish activists at the West Bank town of Burin, near Nablus, on January 21 by approximately a dozen youths carrying clubs and other weapons, according to an eyewitness. Minister Bar Lev later said the perpetrators would be considered members of an “organized terror group”. On February 7, police announced that arrests had been made in the case.

 

Knesset debates the issue

On January 25, Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman Gilad Kariv (Labor) convened a committee discussion on the subject of “Law Enforcement Against Israeli Citizens in Judea and Samaria” to discuss the problem of attacks against Palestinians (reported in English and Hebrew media). This debate illustrated the different ways the issue is perceived politically.

In his remarks to the committee, MK Mossi Raz from the left-wing Meretz party blamed one problem that has complicated efforts to curb violence by settlers or other Jewish extremists: Namely, that as a result of the laws of occupation, there are at least two systems of law and two different systems of reference for Israel, and, he said, they are not evenly resourced. “[One,] the army – which is everywhere – are tasked with dealing with Palestinian [agitators],” Raz said, “while the police, which are almost non-existent in the area, are tasked with dealing with settlers and Israeli [agitators].”

The committee also heard from Osama Saadi and Aida-Touma Sliman of the opposition Arab and far-left Joint List party who scathingly denounced settlements altogether as the root of the problem, as well as Amir Ohana and Simcha Rothman of the centre-right opposition Likud and far-right Religious Zionism parties respectively. MK Ohana stressed that settlers were more likely to be the victims of violent attacks from Palestinians and not the other way around, while Rothman complained that attacks on Palestinians were being discussed while Palestinian stone-throwing attacks on Israeli vehicles – of which there were more than 5,000 incidents in 2021 alone – were not.

 

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on the violence: “Of course that is terror”

Prime Minister Bennett made himself available for interviews with Israeli media at the end of January, and was queried about settler violence in several of those interviews.

Bennett to Ha’aretz’ political analyst Yossi Verter on January 28:

 Verter: The pogromists and the criminals are afforded a safety net by their neighbors, their friends and also the Yesha Council politicos. They make do with a generic condemnation, but there are no arrests and no indictments.

Bennett: “You are mistaken. The vast majority of the settlers realize the damage that is being done to them. Unlike you, I know how many things we have been preventing.”

Verter: We are talking about Jews, whom you see as brothers. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Bar-Lev have called them terrorists. Do you agree, or do you think that only Palestinians who do such deeds are terrorists?

Bennett: “No. Any individual who acts with sweeping violence, to injure or to kill – of course that is terror.”

Also on January 28, Bennett covered similar ground in an interview with Senior Contributing Editor Lahav Harkov in the Jerusalem Post:

Harkov: When Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev said he spoke to an American official about “settler violence,” you came out against painting settlers with a broad brush. But you did not speak out against the recent attacks by Jewish Israelis on Palestinians and their supporters in Huwara and Burin in the last week. Why not?

Bennett: “My stance is clear, as prime minister and always. I totally condemn all violence, certainly by Jews, and beyond that the head of the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency] and the IDF chief of staff sat here a month ago and I called on them to use all the tools necessary to put an end to this violence.

“At the same time, we have to fight the Palestinian violence that costs human lives, acts of murder, including that of Yehuda Dimentman.

“In my view, this violence by Jews, which does not reflect the half million normative Israeli citizens in Judea and Samaria, is shameful, and whoever does it wants to dismantle Israeli statehood. They are saying there is no law and order; we set the law; there is no army or police. That is not why my parents moved to Israel. That’s not why we established a state. We are a state of laws.

“I will not allow this to continue.”

 

Israeli security agencies lack effective coordination, plan

Israel has had limited success stopping settler violence over the years. While some attacks have been prevented ahead of time, and others have seen violent offenders dealt with after attacks, experts agree that there has been a complete failure in arresting violent offenders at the scene of the crime.

Historically, the reason for this is that the IDF has always shifted responsibility for arresting Israelis to the police, while the police insist that the IDF – which have a much larger presence in the West Bank than the police and are far more likely to arrive on the scene of an attack in progress – are empowered to detain Israelis until the police can arrive but are reluctant to be placed into that role.

In mid-January to early February, this behind-the-scenes dispute between the roles of the police and the IDF in stopping acts of violence against Palestinians in progress was thrust out in the open, as Minister Bar-Lev – the government official responsible for the police – challenged Defence Minister Benny Gantz and especially IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi to stop paying lip service to the problem and hand down actionable orders to officers and soldiers to have a more proactive role in arresting Israelis caught in the act of attacking Palestinians.

The greatest success appears to have been through the work of Israel’s internal intelligence agency Shin Bet, or General Security Services (GSS), which has been responsible for a number of high-profile arrests of Jewish terrorists over the years and also managed to infiltrate the Hilltop Youth with an informant at least once recently. On February 3, the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth ran a 6,500-word feature, interviewing one such informant whose tip-offs led to numerous arrests and prevented violent attacks before they happened. Eventually, however, the informant was exposed.

Another method that has been used against Hilltop Youth is to place bans on such activists from entering the West Bank, although Caspit reported in 2019 that these orders are not always respected, while the police lack the resources to track down and arrest those who violate court orders.

 

Journalist and columnists speak out

Ben-Dror Yemini, a prominent columnist for Israel’s popular daily Yedioth Ahronoth, an outspoken voice of the Israeli political centre and champion of the two-state peace paradigm, wrote on January 25 (published in English on January 29) that condemning such violence is important, but more crucial in his view is to remove the settlement outposts that they originate from. He warned that failing to do so risks allowing extremists drag the rest of Israel down the dangerous path towards becoming a binational state that would effectively end the Zionist dream.

Yemini said:

According to the drafts of all peace agreements, most [Israeli West Bank settlement blocs] will remain in Israel’s control even if there is a Palestinian state. But some on the further end of the right-wing want more and more settlements outside areas designated for Israel, through the establishment of ‘neighborhoods,’ which are actually just illegal outposts. And these radicals need to explain how we will get out of this mess….

Don’t get me wrong, some on the Right make justifiable arguments about a potential Palestinian state becoming a playground for Hamas or other radical Islamist groups. They also make legitimate claims about “the campaign of settler violence” being funded by European entities.

The right-wing is also correct in saying that settlers who chose violence are just a minority, even among those who believe in the Greater Israel vision. it is true that they are a minority, but they are a very loud minority. A minority that is creating our future – one that would make the Zionist vision obsolete.

In a column published on January 28 titled “Israel needs to combat settler violence”, the Jerusalem Post’s Editor-in-Chief Ya’akov Katz called on the Israeli Government to formulate a plan to “confront” and “solve” the problem of settler violence:

There are violent criminals in some of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. Israel can’t bury its head in the sand and pretend that they will just go away on their own, and attacking the messenger does exactly that. There needs to be a plan in place to confront this problem and solve it.

In his column, Katz quoted Oded Revivi, mayor of the Gush Etzion settlement of Efrat and former foreign envoy for the Yesha Council, the body which represents the settlement movement. Revivi had been interviewed at length on the issue of settler violence in the Jerusalem Post podcast uploaded on January 27, which Katz conducted together with Lahav Harkov.

Revivi, who is considered to be a maverick in the Yesha Council, and known for his efforts to maintain good relations with Efrat’s Palestinian neighbours, offers a number of insights into the recent wave of both settler violence and unauthorised Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank, the area under Israeli administrative control.

Katz summarised the conversation:

On the one level, [Revivi] said, he understands the mayors who claim that there is no reason to talk about settler violence, just like the mayor of Tel Aviv does not need to weigh in after every rape or murder in his city, since that is not his responsibility but that of the police. And Revivi also hears the argument that responding to these incidents only ends up amplifying them even more.

Nevertheless, he decided to speak up “because it is important to differentiate and say that this is not a representation of the vast majority [of settlers -Y.K.], but about a very small, violent and minor group that needs to be dealt with.”

Revivi said the images seen last Friday, and then on Tuesday when settlers ransacked storefronts in the village of Huwara, tap into a feeling about the general lack of governance in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, in Bedouin villages in the Negev, and also in Judea and Samaria.

“We are asking those who are responsible to start taking responsibility and to deal with this,” said Revivi. “There is a general understanding that no one is dealing with it – not in the circles of security and law enforcement, [and not] in the educational system or social services.”

Revivi’s complete remarks during the 25-minute podcast are very relevant to this blog but are too lengthy to reproduce here. For those who lack the time to listen to the podcast, AIJAC has transcribed his interview in full and linked to the transcript on this page.

 

A desperate attempt to bring down the Government?

On a final note, the political challenge of confronting settler violence raises an interesting theory that one secondary motive of the attacks might be to try to bring down Israel’s Government.

Even if, as stated earlier, the most radical extremists of the Hilltop Youth reject Israel’s existence as a democratic state, their leaders have stated in the past they want to bring down the country through turmoil, and bringing down the Government by provoking left-wing parties to bolt the coalition might therefore serve their interests.

(For the record, a member of the furthest right party in the Knesset, opposition Religious Zionism MK Avi Maoz, made a public appeal to the hilltop youth via the Knesset’s TV channel not to engage in violence. “No private person is allowed to take the law into their own hands,” Maoz said on the program HaMadad (“The Index”) on January 27,  “I turn to the hilltop youth, if they hear me, and tell them, ‘Stop these acts.’”)

Whether such a coalition crisis could arise from this sort of provocation is not mere speculation. In a January 28 interview with Yedioth Ahronoth (Hebrew) Minister of Regional Cooperation Issawi Freij threatened to leave the Government if settler violence of this sort continues to fester unchecked.

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