Better late than never. The Shin Bet and Israel’s other law enforcement authorities have finally realized that a Jewish terrorist, whether organized or independent, poses a danger to the very fabric of Israeli democracy. As a result, they have now switched gears in dealing with this menace.
For years, experts and commentators – including this writer – have suggested that Jewish terrorism is undermining society and must be treated the same as Palestinian terrorists.
But prime ministers, defense ministers, the judiciary and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have shown reluctance to do so, fearing a right-wing political backlash.
It has been a decades-long attitude of laissez-faire and of turning a blind eye toward the crimes of Jewish right-wing extremists. After all, moderate rightists and extreme rightists share the same ideology – they believe that the land in the West Bank, or for them Judea and Samaria, belongs to the Jewish people by divine decree. They differ only on how to realize the notion of “Greater Israel.”
For more than three decades, Israeli democracy has been challenged by a small minority of Jewish settlers, who, whenever they feel or fear that the government is working against their beliefs and ideology, take matters into their own hands and run amok.
This has manifested itself in more than a few harsh outbursts of political violence.
In 1980, Jewish terrorists tried to assassinate a number of Palestinian mayors in the West Bank, planted bombs in a Palestinian school bus in east Jerusalem and planned to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount to make room for the construction of the Third Temple. Four years later, the ring known as the Jewish Underground was busted by the Shin Bet, indicted and sentenced to prison terms. After a few years, most of them were set free and eventually became the role models and leaders of the settler movement and future generations of Jewish terrorists.
Since then, many more terrorist networks or individuals acting as lone wolves have emerged whenever extremists felt that the governments – usually rightwing ones – were not to their taste.
These right-wing extremists attacked both Palestinians and liberal or left-wing Israelis. The most infamous attack by a right-wing extremist against a left-wing Israeli was in 1983, when Yona Avrushmi threw a grenade into a Peace Now demonstration in Jerusalem, killing one participant, Emil Grunzweig.
The high-profile attacks continued into the 1990s: Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994; Yigal Amir gunned down prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995; and the Bat Ayin underground plotted a number of operations, including planting a bomb in a Palestinian girls school in 2002.
There were less-severe incidents as well, in which the victims emerged alive. On one occasion, extremists planted a pipe bomb at the entrance to the house of Hebrew University history professor Zeev Sternhell, setting it alight.
This attack was most likely a response to an op-ed he wrote in 2001 in Haaretz, in which he said, “Many in Israel, perhaps even the majority of the voters, do not doubt the legitimacy of the armed resistance in the territories themselves. The Palestinians would be wise to concentrate their struggle against the settlements, avoid harming women and children.”
After years of investigation, the Shin Bet solved the crime and in 2009 arrested American-born Israeli Ya’acov Teitel. It turned out that the act against Sternhell was one of his “lighter” crimes. Teitel, a technician who lived in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, was above all a serial killer. He was tried and convicted for the murder of two Palestinians, as well as for other acts of violence and hate crimes against police stations and officers, homosexuals, Christians and left-wing Israelis.
According to the Shin Bet, the current wave of Jewish terrorists can be traced to the previous decade.
It began in 2008 with what its perpetrators named “price-tag” attacks, acts of revenge for the demolition of illegal settlements.
This group of young right-wing Jews believe their fathers and leaders have abandoned their revolutionary zeal and ideology, that they have become lazy, bourgeois and complacent. Whenever the government, though reluctantly, abides by the law and is forced by courts to demolish illegal outposts, these youngsters call it an act of betrayal that must be avenged by punishing innocent Palestinians in the West Bank. Trying to avoid human casualties, these price-tag activists began by setting fire to olive groves and destroying isolated warehouses, leaving at the scene of the crime their trademark Hebrew graffiti.
A second and more daring stage in this new generation of extremists soon erupted as a vengeful response to Palestinian terrorist attacks. This stage was signified by the burning of cars and the throwing of Molotov cocktails into homes.
Both of these stages were treated leniently by cabinet ministers, judiciary and courts which perceived the actions lightly as mere juvenile crimes. This lax attitude of the establishment and settlement leaders only encouraged the criminals-terrorists to believe that even if they were not fully supported, they were indeed immune to punishment.
Their operations soon became even more daring and violent. The turning point of the third stage occurred in 2013, when activists known as “hilltop youth” went underground and began plotting operations that had nothing to do with retaliation against the demolition of illegal outposts or Palestinian terrorism.
This is the current phase of extremism facing Israel, which the Shin Bet defines as the “rebellion.”
This is the term used by the hard-core, most dangerous and daring elements of the group itself. Its members are inspired by religiously loaded political ideology.
In their manifesto, they discuss three crucial “fuses” or “explosive barrels” which signify the weak links in the Israeli democratic regime: the Temple Mount; the expulsion of goyim (i.e., Palestinians and Israeli Arabs) from the Land of Israel; and the eradication of “idolatry” (i.e., burning, damaging and desecrating Christian and Muslim holy sites such as graveyards, churches and mosques).
The members of this group believe that by triggering these “fuses,” an atmosphere of chaos will be created. Subsequently, it will lead to an all-out escalation, a sort of Day of Judgment – an eschatological event that will erupt and bring down the secular-democratic foundations of the Jewish state and create the conditions for redemption and Jewish theocracy.
The identities of most of these young fanatics and terrorists – some of them still minors – are known to the Shin Bet. They are misfits who escaped from their homes and live in harsh conditions in tents or under the open sky in sleeping bags in the hills of the West Bank. They despise not only state authorities and institutions which symbolize the state but also their own parents’ authority. Unlike their predecessors – the Jewish Underground or Yigal Amir, who consulted with rabbis and asked for a blessing before executing their terrorist acts – this new generation of Jewish terrorists have no spiritual leaders, at least not known ones.
These young terrorists number no more than 200. Their leader is considered to be Meir Ettinger. Ettinger is the 24-year-old grandson of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, a former Knesset member who five decades ago founded the Jewish Defense League and was eventually murdered in 1990 in New York City by an Egyptian-American terrorist.
Ettinger was arrested earlier this week by the Shin Bet and is being held in custody.
If he doesn’t break down under questioning – and most likely he will not – and the Shin Bet has difficulty producing evidence against him, Ettinger will probably be sent to administrative detention, custody without trial, based on the Israeli emergency laws. This type of detention has been widely used for Palestinian and Israeli Arab suspects, but rarely for Jews.
One of Ettinger’s disciples has already been put under administrative detention, by the signature of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. He is Mordechai Meyer, an 18-yearold resident of Ma’aleh Adumim in the West Bank, originally from Beit Shemesh.
The administrative order provides authorities with the right to detain Meyer for six months without trial. Meyer is suspected of involvement in the cell that set fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes near Tiberias.
Concurrently, another suspect, Aviatar Slonim, was also arrested for participation in the same organized violent radical Jewish group. In the past Slonim was banned from entering the West Bank and Jerusalem.
This new rebellious group is different from previous generations of Jewish terrorists, and from the initial two stages of their own organization, in that they are prepared to sacrifice their own lives to the cause.
Their acts have thus become more risky and daring. They know that if they enter the heart of a Palestinian village at night, they may be discovered and killed by the local villagers. And still, they are ready to do so. They also know – and are prepared to bear the consequences – that if they are arrested by Israeli law enforcement agencies, they will be sent to jail, even for long sentences.
The Shin Bet and Israel Police, which recently founded a special unit to deal with Jewish terrorism in the West Bank, claim that it is difficult to gather intelligence on the group. This is in part due to growing awareness by the group members of how to avoid detection and infiltration, as well as because of their monkish lifestyle.
In order not to leave a digital signature, these extremists do not carry cellphones during their terrorist operations and rarely use them at all. They are divided into small cells, maintaining secrecy by departmentalization.
They communicate via messengers or discuss operations in small gatherings.
They don’t have any central command or hierarchy – except for recognizing Ettinger’s skills. Lacking any property or belongings, they move freely and relocate quickly from one hill to another. They suspect that any newcomer who wishes to join them is a Shin Bet agent. They do not carry firearms. They teach one another how to face interrogations and, unlike most Palestinian suspects, maintain silence.
The Shin Bet also argues in its defense that even if they were to have a full picture of the group’s internal activities and plots, it would be difficult to translate and transform the intelligence data into legal evidence admissible in court.
The security agency strongly rejects the criticism raised by some politicians and commentators that it has shown a lack of determination and a soft attitude to the phenomenon. The critics have argued that the Shin Bet has recruited in recent years many religious personnel, some of them from the settlers’ quarters in the West Bank, who are thus by definition sympathetic of right-wing causes. Some left-wing journalists have obsessively blamed Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, a religious former yeshiva student who wears a yarmulke, for the failure of the authorities to crack down on the group.
“This is complete nonsense,” former senior Shin Bet officers told me. “Cohen is a real law-abiding civil servant and is fully committed to the values and laws of the State of Israel, exactly as his predecessor. His religious beliefs do not stand in the way of his carrying out his duties.”
The Shin Bet also says that as opposed to what has been written in some media outlets, the officers dealing with Jewish terrorism – assigned to the department dealing with Jewish extremism and political subversion – are experienced operatives with operational backgrounds and interrogation skills.
Another contributing factor in the lack of success in the battle against Jewish terrorism, especially if compared to the great achievements against Palestinian terrorism, is the fact that the courts have taken a lenient attitude to suspects, as well as to those indicted, who were sentenced to only light terms in prison.
One example of the court’s leniency stands out. Two terrorists who set fire to a bilingual Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem were recently sentenced, respectively, to two and two-and-a-half years in jail.
These two perpetrators were members of the extreme right-wing group Lehava – a Hebrew acronym for the Organization for the Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land. The group, led by Bentzi Gopstein, is considered to be a front for the racist ideas of Meir Kahane. Ya’alon was ready to consider outlawing the group, but Shin Bet experts said that there was no sufficient legal evidence for such a move.
On Wednesday it was revealed that Gopstein mentioned in a public discussion that he supported the burning of churches.
One can hope that maybe now the Shin Bet will reconsider its position. If it does not, and Lehava remains unbanned, perhaps Gopstein may at least be arrested and indicted for inciting violence.
It seems that after years of negligence and wrist-slapping, the government’s attitude toward the threat of Jewish terrorism is finally changing. The Shin Bet, cabinet and judiciary are ready to adopt all the legal measures used against Palestinian terrorism, including administrative detentions and the use of psychological pressure during interrogations.
But security and legal measures, harsh as they might be, are not sufficient. Eradicating this phenomenon requires real soul-searching and self-awareness on the part of settlement leaders and right-wing politicians. The leadership in the Likud and Bayit Yehudi parties must come to terms with the fact that political violence and acts of terrorism have emerged throughout the years from their camp, and not from the Israeli Center or Left.
There is a need to improve education so that youth recognize that the notion of Greater Israel does not justify any crime or evil act.
In its attempts to define last year’s wave of Palestinian acts of terrorism, especially in Jerusalem, the Shin Bet characterized them as “acts inspired by atmosphere and environment.”
The same is applicable to Jewish terrorism.