FOR YEARS radical young Jewish settlers have been a law unto themselves, setting fire to churches and mosques, beating Palestinian villagers in their fields, uprooting olive trees and sometimes, more recently, torching Palestinian homes.
Arrests have been very rare; convictions even rarer.
But that may be about to change. The burning to death of Ali Dawabsha, an 18-month-old infant in the West Bank village of Duma in late July, sent shock waves across Israeli society. People were horrified at the callous inhumanity of the perpetrators. Damage to property, as criminal as it may be, was one thing; coldblooded killing quite another.
Moreover, the government now realizes that it too is a target. Some of the young religiously observant radicals claim that their goal is to topple the country’s secular democratic regime and set up a Jewish religious kingdom under Torah law in its stead. It is also becoming increasingly clear to the country’s leaders that the unpunished settler rampages are compromising Israel’s international standing at a time when anti-Israel boycott and divestment moves are gaining traction.
Many tend to dismiss the extremists as a handful of disturbed young fanatics, a few dozen at most. But some of their ideas pared down to essentials, for example a more religiously Jewish state in all of Biblical Israel with as few Palestinians in it as possible, have broad right-wing support.
This raises two key questions: How widespread are these non-democratic, nationalistic views and is the current rightwing government really serious about taking the extremists on? The group suspected of the arson in Duma and the mid-June torching of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee is apparently led by 24-year-old Meir Ettinger, a grandson of the late Meir Kahane, whose anti-Arab Kach party was banned in the late 1980s as racist.
In a manifesto entitled “The Revolt,” now in police hands, Ettinger lays out the group’s radical ideology. The goal, he writes, is to replace the State of Israel with a halakhic kingdom under Torah law; this is to be accomplished by causing widespread chaos, leading to the collapse of the secular state; violence is to be directed against Palestinians, who have no place in the Jewish kingdom, and against Christian churches, which, he claims, “engage in idol worship,” and as such have no place in the holy land. The group’s operational manual shows it has no qualms about causing grievous bodily harm or even death. All this, it believes, hastens the coming of the messiah.
ETTINGER IS not alone. There are parallel groups that share parts of his ideology or act in similar ways against Palestinians, mosques and churches. And, more worrying perhaps, there are also wider concentric circles of passive support among the settlers and the Israeli right as a whole.
The “hilltop youth” nurtured by radical figures like Daniella Weiss of the West Bank settlement of Kedumim have long since adopted what they call the “price tag” policy, making the government pay for any attempts it makes to dismantle Jewish settlements through revenge attacks on Palestinian, IDF and police property.
But they differ from the Ettinger group in two significant ways: They aim primarily to destroy property for property destroyed, not cause bodily harm, and they do not seek to overthrow the government.
On the contrary, they see in the Israeli state as currently constituted a first step on the road to redemption.
The Jewish Leadership group under former Likud Knesset member Moshe Feiglin shares the Ettinger goal of transforming Israel into an “authentically Jewish state” – a kingdom under Torah law. But, unlike Ettinger, Feiglin rejects violence. Palestinians, for example, would be paid to leave.
And as for the Duma arson attack, Feiglin describes it as “shocking,” “terrible” and “disgusting.”
More in tune with the Ettinger group’s violent activism, Benzion Gopstein’s overtly racist Lahava, in the name of Jewish purity, which it euphemistically calls “preventing assimilation,” opposes all forms of Jewish-Arab cooperation from Jewish-Arab romantic liaisons and Jewish- Arab coexistence projects to hiring Arab workers and renting apartments to Arabs.
Gopstein, a former member of Kahane’s outlawed Kach movement, is not averse to using intimidation against individuals and institutions as a tool to achieve his aims.
In July, two Lahava members, Shlomo and Nachman Twito, were convicted of torching the Jewish-Arab Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem last November and sentenced to two to two and half years in jail.
In early August, Vatican representatives in the Holy Land demanded Gopstein’s indictment after he openly called for further torching of churches, repeating the mantra that “idol worship must be destroyed.”
After a brief interrogation, Gopstein was released. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon says he wants Lahava declared an illegal organization – but so far the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) has failed to produce sufficient evidence for such a move.
Much of the activity against Palestinians and for Greater Israel has the approval of radical settler rabbis. Two examples: Ettinger picked up the Jewish kingdom idea from American-born Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh at the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar; and two other Yitzhar rabbis, Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, produced the 2009 book “Torat Hamelech,” which argues that, according to Jewish law, in certain circumstances killing gentiles is permissible. Other settler rabbis sanction actions taken in the name of extended Jewish control over Greater Israel.
All this helps to create an atmosphere in which radical young settlers feel free to take violent action against Palestinians and Palestinian property.
RELIGIOUS ZIONIST settlers as a whole favor a Jewish state in all of Biblical Israel, including the West Bank – with the Palestinians a tolerated minority with truncated rights or induced to leave. After all, this was the main purpose of their settlement enterprise. This means that even if the vast majority disagree with the Ettinger group’s violent methods and end vision, many quietly sympathize with the attacks as helping to bring about the Jewish-dominated Greater Israel they seek.
And although some settler leaders, like former chairman of the Judea and Samaria Settler Council Danny Dayan, have been outspoken against “price-tag” – calling it “stupid” and “counterproductive,” the settler leadership has done little to curtail it.
Indeed, some of the more extreme settler ideas find expression in the settlers’ political party, Bayit Yehudi, a key member of the current Likud-led government. For example, Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel calls for the building of the Third Temple on the site of the Muslim mosques on Temple Mount; Knesset Member Bezalel Smotrich says Jewish developers shouldn’t be required by law to sell homes to Arabs; and Knesset Member Motti Yogev recently called for the Supreme Court to be bulldozed out of existence. All three are from the more radical Tekumah wing of Bayit Yehudi, but similar anti-democratic and anti-Arab ideas can be found throughout the party.
More importantly, such ideas also permeate the ruling Likud. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election-day warning that Arabs were being “bused in droves” to the voting booths is a case point.
Moreover, when President Reuven Rivlin spoke of “his shame and pain” at the murder by Jewish terrorists of the infant Ali Dawabsha, his empathy triggered a storm of protest in the Likud, with one senior party figure calling for his arrest and/or hospitalization. There were also hundreds of abusive talkbacks and a photoshopped portrayal of Rivlin in Nazi uniform.
This makes the fight against Jewish terror that much more difficult. The Likud leadership instead of fighting the attendant racism uses it as a means of mobilizing support. Worse, on the key strategic question of the day, the government and the extremists are on the same side – against Palestinian statehood in the context of a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where they differ is over the kind of Israel that emerges – a Western democracy or a halakhic kingdom. Nevertheless the fact that the extremist activities serve a one-state agenda explains to some extent why the right-wing government has been slow to act against them.
Some analysts suggest that the Shin Bet and the IDF have been ineffective because of a degree of sympathy among units in the territories for the Jewish extremists.
Many in those units are observant Jews, many of them from the settlements. They are also apparently loathe to use the same methods to make Jewish extremists talk as they do with suspected Palestinian terrorists.
Indeed, past Shin Bet, IDF, police and judiciary inaction and inefficiency suggest a lack of political will to deal with settler violence on Palestinians.
THE NUMBERS t ell a s orry s tory. A ccording to the Jerusalem-based Rabbis for Human Rights, there have been 43 hate crimes against churches, monasteries and mosques since 2009. In that same time, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs counts over 2,000 “price tag” attacks on Palestinians or Palestinian property. The Shin Bet lists 74 of the more serious attacks which it defines as Jewish terror between 2011 and 2014.
Most tellingly, the left-wing Yesh Din organization examined 1,000 Palestinian complaints filed with the police between 2005 and 2014, and found that over 92 percent of cases were closed without an indictment being filed; 85 percent were closed because police failed to find the perpetrators or enough evidence. Of the 7 percent of cases that got to court, 23 percent were summarily dismissed. Of the others nearly 25 percent ended with a guilty verdict, without penalty or imposition of a criminal record. Only onethird of cases that got to court ended with a full or partial conviction – that is, just over 2 percent of all cases.
But is the tide about to turn? Netanyahu and many on the right see the Ettinger type violence as a double-edged sword, which also threatens them, primarily by playing into the hands of Israel’s critics from the BDS movement to American and European government stands against settlement. In other words, they see the Ettinger, Gopstein and “price tag” groups as harmful to the settlement enterprise and Israel’s standing in the world.
In the past, whenever he has felt threatened, Netanyahu has been able to take strong action against his would-be political rivals. For example, when he felt his freedom of action inside the Likud challenged by Feiglin’s attempted hostile takeover of the party, he moved ruthlessly against the radical religious settler group Feiglin led, ultimately forcing them out.
The current crop of Jewish extremists pose a different problem. They are by no means part of the Likud but Netanyahu may fear that by acting against them he could lose far right-wing and racist votes to Bayit Yehudi or Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.
Nevertheless, there are signs of significant changes afoot. In early August, the government decided to define Jewish attacks on Palestinians, Palestinian property, mosques and churches as “terror,” and the attorney general authorized the use of administrative detention against persons planning or involved in such activities.
Ettinger was one of the first to be detained. Other arrests will likely follow.
If the Shin Bet and police are able to get to the Jewish terrorist cells, administrative detention – holding suspected terrorists indefinitely without trial – could break them.
Moreover, it is already more than three years since the police set up a special unit to deal with violent crimes by Jews against Palestinians. But they claim that during this period they uncovered 30 percent more cases, and brought about 98 percent more indictments and 75 percent more convictions. The Shin Bet, which has a special Jewish terror department, also claims to be stepping up its campaign against the Jewish terror cells, after having redefined Jewish terror against Palestinians as a “serious threat.”
How all this plays out will depend a lot on Netanyahu. He faces, inter alia, the classic dilemma of having to choose between international goodwill and the support of the far right. Up till now, whenever the chips were down, Netanyahu has invariably chosen the electorate.
This time, it seems, he may be able to find a way to have his cake and eat it.