Sadie Goldman
Israel Policy Forum
October 15, 2008 - 8:00pm

One of the settlers pulled out a knife, pressed it to the neck of the company commander and said: ‘well, what will you do now, Nazi?’”

Attacks on Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians by West Bank settlers, like this one described by an Israeli reservist after the evacuation last month of the West Bank outpost Yad Yair, have nearly doubled in 2008 from 291 incidents in 2007 to 222 in the first half of 2008, according to a recent UN report. In the last month, the number of attacks has skyrocketed. Israeli attempts to evacuate West Bank outposts in Yitzhar, Yad Yair, and Shvut Ami have been met with groups of settlers—many of them teenagers—throwing stones, yelling curses, vandalizing cars, and worse.

The roughly 100 West Bank outposts are settlements unauthorized by the Israeli government. They usually start as either uninhabited trailers or small mobile-home communities that are meant to be used as bargaining chips with the government: “we'll evacuate from here if you let us stay there.” These outposts are usually deep in the West Bank, far from the area that Israel would like to incorporate into its territory as part of a final peace deal, and are often built on hills that overlook Palestinian towns and villages.

The settler violence has not been random but rather coordinated in advance. As Israeli soldiers were making their way to Yad Yair, two hundred settlers were already on the scene. Text messages were sent to thousands of settlers calling on them to stop the evacuation, the daily Yediot Acharonoth reported.

In response to the removal of the settler installations at Yad Yair, settlers not only attacked soldiers who were removing the outpost's trailers, but also launched retaliatory attacks against Palestinians in several West Bank cities and towns. Israeli newspapers reported that settlers attacked Israeli soldiers in Talmon, threw stones at Arab vehicles in Yad Yair and at Palestinian civilians in Hebron, and set fire to fields near the settlement of Yitzhar.

The recent West Bank riots have been followed by brazen threats of more to come. Extremist leaders have been promoting a retaliation doctrine they have labeled the “price tag.” Twenty-four year old, New York-born Akiva HaCohen, who is considered an architect of the price tag doctrine and one of the leaders of the violent outpost movement, has called on settlers to respond “whenever, wherever, and however.” Radical settler leader, Daniella Weiss, has also warned that there will be a response to evacuating outposts throughout the West Bank.

The violence is committed by a small minority of the approximately 300,000 West Bank settlers, and is not supported by the Yesha council, the official council of the settlers. According to Nadav Shragai of Haaretz, about 3,000 settlers have participated in recent attacks. As attacks continue, however, and extremists challenge the authority not only of the Yesha Council and its leaders, but also of the state of Israel itself, the issue is no longer about a “few bad seeds” deep in the West Bank.

The pipe bomb that injured Israeli Professor Zeev Sternhell as he opened the gate of his Jerusalem home, and the leaflets that were circulated in his neighborhood offering a million shekels for every Peace Now activist killed, drove home themessage that Jewish terror is real. Such attacks challenge Israeli democracy and will only be stopped through serious government action.

Who Controls the Settlers?

Yesha, the council of settlements representing 30 settlements and 12 outposts, seeks to organize the settlements and expand their ranks. Established in response to Israel's agreement to withdraw from the Sinai as part of its 1978 peace deal with Egypt, its answer to the government’s evacuation of settlers in Sinai was increased settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. When Israel pulled its settlers from Gaza in 2005, Yesha vowed yet again to expand West Bank settlements.

After Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s September 29 call for an Israeli withdrawal “from almost all the territories, if not all the territories” captured in 1967, Yesha Council leader and former chairman, Pinchas Wallerstein told the daily Maariv that in the face “of the most hostile government that has ever existed towards settlers,” they have increased their ranks by an additional 15,000 new settlers so far in 2008 and by over 50,000 (or about 30 percent) during Olmert's term in office.

One of Yesha’s techniques to keep the number of settlers high is to negotiate with the government. In August, for example, Israel's Defense Ministry and Yesha came to an agreement over the fate of the outpost of Migron, which includes 60 mobile homes and two permanent structures housing 43 families. Instead of forcibly evacuating its residents and possibly facing rioters, they agreed to move the families to a permanent site nearby. Army officials had been holding talks with settler leaders about relocating Yad Yair as well. The settler riot there demonstrated, however, that negotiating with the extremist settlers is not working and that Yesha is unable to control the extremists.

Who Are the Extremists?

The majority of the young people who show up ready to fight Israeli soldiers to save an outpost belong to a movement nicknamed “the hilltop youth,” in reference to their commitment to settle the hills far from the Israeli border. The name also evokes their hippyish appearance and, often, their Jewish-messianic fervor, which denies the power of the state. Many of them have lived in the West Bank their entire lives and have been taught by radical rabbis who teach the preeminence, and religious justification, of settlement. Others have left their families for a communal, even cultish, life style. Avri Ran, the “father” of the hilltop youth, established many of the first “hilltop communities” and became a guru for the movement.

Ran described the development of the movement in an interview with the right-wing Israeli radio station Arutz Sheva: “slowly a group of youngsters formed around me—teenagers who had not found their place. I had to live with the vomit and the craziness of some of them, to sign papers at the nuthouse that we were responsible for others. . . We went to another hilltop and another. The moment a community was founded, I would move to another hilltop and confrontations would start anew.”

Since those beginnings in the early 1990s, which coincided with, and reacted to, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on the establishment of a Palestinian state and the withdrawal of settlers from it, the hilltop movement has increasingly felt threatened by evacuations and calls for withdrawal. Events such as Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the current peace process negotiations, and the negotiations between the state and Yesha over outposts have inspired hilltop members to mobilize. Leaders such as Daniella Weiss, Avri Ran, and Akiva HaCohen, increasingly call the Yesha Council heretical. Their supporters have even harassed Zeev Hever, a Yesha leader—himself a former member of a 1980s underground Jewish terror group—accusing him of moderation, slashing the tires of his car, and threatening him with physical violence.

On October 5, Roi Sharon revealed in Maariv that a group called the “Outposts Association” had recently formed as an alternative to Yesha to represent extremist settlers. “Activists in the hilltop outposts began to circulate a registration form for the Outposts Association, which will admit as members only, people who live in practice in an outpost that is currently defined by the establishment as an ‘unauthorized settlement,’” which they estimate to include over 400 families. The document goes on to state that “the administration and the association will operate to do God’s bidding, in keeping with the Torah of Israel,” and concludes, “we declare that any authority who should presume to come to decisions regarding the settlement outpost/s and does not include the above-cited administration in all stages of the negotiations or in the decision making process, will be doing so without having received a mandate from us, and those decisions will be from our perspective as worthless as the dust of the earth and devoid of value.”

What’s Being Done?
Since the recent rioting of young extremist settlers began, the Israeli government has taken some measures to stop it. On October 2, Daniella Weiss was arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer and interfering with a police investigation. In late August, Akiva HaCohen was banned from the West Bank for four months along with two other right-wing leaders.

But some military and government officials have been saying that the police force assigned to enforcing law among settlers lacks the funds and manpower to do so effectively. In a meeting of the Knesset’s Committee for Internal Affairs, Chairman Ophir Pines-Paz asked the Israeli police to provide concrete information on what’s really happening in the West Bank, what resources they have to deal with it, and what their plan of action is.

Acknowledging that Israel has a problem with right-wing Jewish terror is an important step. Even more important is that the Israeli government, military, and police now take the necessary measures to stop violence, inside and outside of the green line. In a Committee hearing following the pipe bomb attack on Professor Sternhell, Pines-Paz stated it plainly: “we are calling this an act of terror because that is precisely what it is, especially when it pertains to an ideological debate on the direction Israel is going. . . . We have to take very firm action. These are terrorists—Jewish, but terrorists just the same.”


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