It took the death of a Palestinian mother of nine, but once again security forces, pundits and politicians are focusing on the increased radicalization of a fringe of young Jewish residents of the West Bank.
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) descended several times in the past weeks on the Pri Ha’aretz high school yeshiva in the Samaria settlement of Rehelim near the Tapuah junction. On Thursday, it detained 30 students there in its investigation of the death of Aysha Rabi, a Palestinian mother of nine, who was killed in October when a rock hit her as she was traveling close to the junction.
The security services believe that radical, ultranationalist settler youths were responsible for the attack and have seemingly uncovered a hard core of extremist and possibly violent activists at Pri Ha’aretz.
The Shin Bet found an Israeli flag with a Swastika and the slogan “death to Zionists” scrawled on it, a video of an Israeli flag being burned and other troublesome evidence besides.
Many are now asking, as they have in previous eruptions of extremist Jewish violence, what the nature of this extremism and anti-Zionism is and how it has taken root in the margins of society in Judea and Samaria, among what are known as the “hilltop youth” and other young radicals.
The number of these ultranationalists – who are all very young, in their 20s and 30s and even minors, as seen in Pri Ha’aretz – is tiny. There are a few hundred people who can be described as hilltop youth, and a few dozen at the hard core who are violent, says former Shin Bet official Dvir Kariv.
The term “hilltop youth” is somewhat amorphous, says Kariv, since those who actually do live on hilltops in huts, tents or even caves often go back to more permanent dwellings, including yeshivot, in the winter months, due to the harsh conditions in the territory at this time.
But what are the ideological foundations underpinning their lifestyle, beliefs and radical actions?
HILLEL WEISS, a professor emeritus of literature at Bar-Ilan University, is a longtime ultranationalist and settlement activist who helped found the Elkana settlement, where he lives, and is a spokesman for the “Sanhedrin” organization which advocates for the application of Torah law in place of secular law in the State of Israel.
Weiss, 74, is not a “hilltop youth,” but his ideology is close to their perspective, and he says he has cousins living in the tiny outpost of Geulat Zion, close to the Adei Ad settlement just 20-30 km. from Rehelim itself, whose residents farm, have a sheep pen and are connected to the land.
Weiss argues that one of the founding principles of Zionism was for the Jewish people to be like all other peoples, and the State of Israel to be like all other states, but he insists that if this is the goal, the state “has no justification and no right to exist.”
“Israel is acting against Jewish sovereignty, Israel is seen as a traitorous state, against the Torah and Judaism,” he says, adding that “the Jews have betrayed the Torah” through their narrow vision for their country and their embrace of Enlightenment and Western ideas and principles over the Torah.
Weiss says it is a religious obligation on the Jewish people to take control of all the Land of Israel, which includes parts of Syria up to the Euphrates River, territory that will be necessary to accommodate large numbers of people should the 10 lost tribes of Israel and forced converts in South America return to Israel.
The High Court of Justice wants Israel to be a state of all its citizens, without any Jewish character; and the court, together with the other institutions of the state, including the Shin Bet, the police and the legal establishment, “conspire” and against the Jewish people.
The hilltop youth are today’s pioneers, who have a broad vision for the country, who live according to Jewish law and seek to conquer the entire Land of Israel, says Weiss.
“Those studying in Pri Ha’aretz and the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in nearby Yitzhar and those living on the hilltops are the most refreshing people, the youth, the most normal, and they are the vanguard,” he says.
DR. SHLOMO FISCHER, a sociologist and lecturer in the Department of Education at the Hebrew University and senior staff member at the Jewish People Policy Institute, says that there are three major ways in which the hilltop youth and other radicals acquire their Jewish ultranationalism and extremism.
The first is the doctrine of the authority of the radical activist, developed by Yehuda Etzion, a member of the Jewish Underground in the 1980s, and by Shabtai Ben-Dov of the Lehi paramilitary group before him.
The doctrine stipulates that the inner voice of the activist answering a divine call to action is its own legitimation for radicalism.
This is a principle espoused by Meir Ettinger, a leading figure in the hilltop youth who was arrested and detained for 10 months in administrative detention by the Shin Bet in 2015 on suspicion of involvement in the Duma arson attack in which three members of the Palestinian Dawabshe family, including an 18-month old baby, were murdered.
Ettinger, the grandson of far-right ultranationalist Meir Kahane, was also reportedly one of the activists in Yitzhar who drove to Pri Ha’aretz on a Shabbat morning in October just after Rabi was killed in order to prepare the suspects in the yeshiva for their questioning by the Shin Bet and to help them avoid revealing incriminating evidence under interrogation.
Another no less important principle influencing radicalization, says Fischer, is the importance within the hilltop youth milieu of authenticity, self-expression and indeed the spiritualism that parts of the religious settlement movement has absorbed from hassidic influences.
Living in close connection with the land, the authenticity of farming, the starkness of the countryside help inculcate a feeling of the sanctity and holiness of the land to the Jewish people and an urgency to hold on and protect it even more.
And then there is the anti-Zionist activism, similar to Weiss’s philosophy and stemming from influences like Kahane, which is based on the idea that the state is illegitimate because it was built by irreligious Jews, is a secular entity, fails to protect Jews and fails to conquer the entire Land of Israel and settle it.
In the eyes of the radicals, says Fischer, the fact that Jews can be killed with impunity in the Land of Israel is a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, and necessitates rectification with reprisal attacks.
These have taken expression in price-tag attacks, attacks against Palestinian olive groves and livestock, and apparently against Palestinian lives as well.
THE INFLUENCE of radical rabbis is unclear. On the one hand, there are extremist figures like Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, president of the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva in Yitzhar, who is thought to have written, at least in part, the Baruch Hagever pamphlet defending the actions of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.
Ginsburgh is reported to have spoken recently at the Pri Ha’aretz Yeshiva.
Other actors include the authors of the Torat Hamelech book, rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, deans of Od Yosef Hai, which sets out arguments within Jewish law about when it is permitted to kill non-Jews.
However, these rabbis have not directly advocated for violence against Palestinians, and the hilltop youth are so radical that even most rabbis are seen as having sold out and compromised, says Fischer.
Indeed, one of the co-deans of Pri Ha’aretz, Rabbi Yehuda Libman, who was a student at Od Yosef Hai, was originally seen as an authority figure by the hilltop youth, but after 2014 and a price-tag incident in Yitzhar was subsequently rejected as too moderate for the radicals.
Although the direct influence of the rabbis over the radicals is likely scant, Kariv says that the culture these youth are growing up in, with such rabbis espousing dangerous sentiments against non-Jews and regarding religious obligations towards the land, is part of the radicalization process.
When these messages and values are disseminated, it is not the furthest leap for the radical youth to turn to violence.
“The rabbis teach a radical agenda, but this does not include violence, and they don’t encourage violence, but the youth take it further themselves,” says Kariv. “The rabbis teach things that the students can take their own conclusions from and go and carry out terrorist attacks.”
In some cases the extremism and violence are also part of a broader strategy – as enunciated in the pamphlet “Kingdom of Iniquity” by another prominent hilltop youth extremist, Moshe Orbach – which seeks, through violence against the Palestinians, to establish such chaos as to allow for the creation of an autonomous entity in Judea and Samaria under Jewish law.
Orbach, who was sentenced to two years imprisonment in 2016 for incitement to violence in the pamphlet, writes about how to burn churches and mosques and to establish small terrorist cells that are difficult for the Shin Bet to penetrate and expose.
Ultimately, the number of violent hilltop youth and radicals is extremely small, and the danger they represent to the stability of the State of Israel, despite their grandiose plans, is small.
But this makes the radicalization and extremism no less frightening or worrying, and they cannot be left unchecked when Palestinians are murdered, harassed and attacked, while the very nature of the modern State of Israel as a democratic state comes under ideological attack.
As long as this radicalization and extremism continue, we can expect to hear of incidents similar to the murder of Aysha Rabi and the mass detention of Jewish suspects.
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