A growing radical fringe is taking aim at Palestinians — and the Israeli government.
- By Shira RubinShira Rubin is an American journalist based in Jerusalem.
MITZPE KRAMIM, West Bank — Gilboa Marmerstein says that her life is a “daily struggle.” The 16-year-old is awaiting the day when her family will move out of their trailer, which lacks insulation, much less a connection to cable television, and build a permanent home. When I met Marmerstein recently in her living room, she wore jean shorts and a messy bun. In between discussing what it’s like to live at an outpost above the rolling hills of the Jordan Valley, she spent her time chasing her seven younger siblings. In some ways, she is an average Israeli teenager obsessed with her friends and her phone. But she spoke with gravity born of responsibility, both to family and to mission. Despite the struggle, she said, her life is also geula, salvation.
The 42 families of Mitzpe Kramim, which means “Lookout onto the Vineyards” in Hebrew, say that they wouldn’t give up the tranquil, family-oriented, and righteous lifestyle for anything, especially not a 2011 Israeli Supreme Court evacuation order that declared that the land on which they live is private Palestinian property. Marmerstein mocked the irrelevance of the court decision and said she believes that sooner or later, Jews from across Israel and the world will join her in Judea and Samaria — using the area’s biblical name.
The Israeli government backs most of the 500,000 Jews spread across roughly 100 settlements in the West Bank by providing them military protection and largely allowing them to continue construction without the necessary permits. But another estimated 100 unsanctioned hilltop outposts like Mitzpe Kramim have tested the state’s policy. Even though the Central Bureau of Statistics shows a surge of more than 200 percent in completed sanctioned housing construction in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the same period in 2014, Marmerstein and her neighbors feel betrayed by Israel’s government. Violent demonstrations have erupted in response to the occasional demolitions of illegal structures, neighborhoods, or entire outposts in the West Bank; in these demonstrations, settlers have hurled stones at police officers and soldiers, comparing them to the biblical conquerors who destroyed the sacred Jewish temples in ancient Jerusalem. They say the Israeli government is too shortsighted to recognize the community’s bravery in setting up camp on this patch of land on Israel’s last frontier.
“Israelis see us as house stealers, stone throwers, baby killers, but this is the most Israeli that you can be, really!” Marmerstein said.
In recent weeks, hard-line settlers like Marmerstein and her family have become a flashpoint in Israeli politics and society, leading to political condemnation — and backlash. Following the July 29 demolition of two buildings in the settlement of Beit El, a settlement just north of Ramallah, settler leaders presented the right-wing Jewish Home party, a member of the ruling coalition, with an ultimatum: Either pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to approve further construction in the settlement or lose the settlers’ political support. In just a matter of hours, Netanyahu approved the construction of 300 homes in Beit El. But residents there and other hard-liners throughout the West Bank were unimpressed, claiming that the approval was part of a previous deal made in 2012 when the government evacuated another neighborhood in the settlement. “Anyway, we’re tired of these games,” said one Beit El resident. “We see that Bibi [Netanyahu] simply doesn’t have the faith needed to stand up for his ideals.”
Then things got really ugly. On July 31, unidentified attackers firebombed a home in the West Bank Palestinian village of Duma. An 18-month-old baby, Ali Dawabsheh, and his father, Saad, were killed. On the walls of the Dawabsheh family home, arsonists left graffiti that read, “Long Live the Messiah” and “Revenge!” No one has been apprehended for the attack, but Israeli law enforcement officials and politicians blamed “Jewish terrorists.” Netanyahu condemned the act as “heinous” and promised to bring the arsonists to justice. President Reuven Rivlin wrote on his Facebook page that “Flames have engulfed our country. Flames of violence, flames of hatred, flames of false, distorted and twisted beliefs.”
Most believe the attacks were carried out by the radical right. It could have been the “hilltop youth,” the mostly teenagers and young families who, to varying degrees, refuse the authority of the state and live strict Torah-based lifestyles on what they see as a Zionist frontier. Also suspects are “price taggers,” a related group that has vowed to exact a “price” in the form of attacks on Palestinian properties or people every time Israel works to curb Jewish expansion in the West Bank. While the various groups differ on strategy, they share a common desire to cleanse Israel of non-Jews. At the more radical outposts, only “Jewish labor” is permitted, on the notion that only Jews can imbue the vineyards, soil, and the walls of the homes with Jewish character and therefore prepare the land and the people for the arrival of the Jewish Messiah.
While only dozens of hilltop youth are estimated to exist in the depths of the Palestinian-ruled sections of the West Bank, Israeli security forces have identified around 100 extremists who they believe have been involved in attacks against Palestinians, both from the West Bank and from Israeli cities. These extremists are distinguished by their knit yarmulkes, long sidelocks, and straggly beards, a look fitting their Jewish-hippy counterculture based on an organic connection with the land of the West Bank rather than the “rotten” materialism of mainstream Israel.
Small communities like Mitzpe Kramim have become breeding grounds for the growing “hilltop youth” movement. Marmerstein told me she doesn’t condone violence like the attack in Duma, but she identifies with the frustration and motives behind fringe militant groups and insists that Jews need to do whatever is necessary to defend their God-given right to the land. “This is our home, of course,” she said. “And, besides, the Arabs have more than 18 countries. What are they doing here at all?”
“Jewish terror” is not new to Israel. In one of the most infamous incidents, the Irgun, a militant Zionist group, set off a bomb in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946, killing 91 people. But, says Shlomo Fischer, a sociology professor and expert on Jewish extremism, the modern incarnation is younger and more religious, uniting an eclectic group of fringe outcasts around an identity of “romantic religious nationalism.”
The movement dates back to 1967, when Israel captured and occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in a six-day war that many saw as imbued with messianic promise. Today, the loosely organized movement appeals to many marginalized youth and yeshiva dropouts by offering an “authentic” countercultural experience, says Fischer, who compares the recruitment strategy and sense of identity to extremist Islamist groups like the Islamic State. “You feel like you are able to connect with some sort of purpose, some sort of ideology that you’d never heard of,” an anonymous former hilltop youth activist told Israel’s Channel 2. He said that hilltop activists recruit at information booths throughout Israeli cities and are usually able to attract teenagers as young as 14, some 80 or 90 percent of whom come from broken homes.
The groups also feed on what settlers say is a passionate and widespread disappointment with what is seen as a traitorous government. In 2003, the Israeli government committed to freezing settlement expansion as part of the Roadmap for Peace plan.* (Since then, settlements nonetheless have expanded drastically.) While some settlements, especially those closer to Israel’s recognized borders, are fully established and treated as part of Israel, outposts like Mitzpe Kramim are seen by the state as an obstacle to peace.
Since the collapse of the peace process in 2000, however, Israel has also been divided by a fierce debate over the future of the country’s identity, pitting the country’s status as a Jewish nation-state against its espoused principles of democracy and pluralism. Politicians on the right have increasingly framed events in religious terms, concluding that a solution relies on the state’s ability to elevate its “Jewish” qualities — such as West Bank settlement as a means of reclaiming a biblical promise — over its democratic qualities, such as granting full civil rights to the 1.7 million Palestinians who live within its borders. As the conflict has dragged on, hard-line pro-settler support for “Greater Israel” has gained currency to the extent that Jewish presence in the West Bank has been increasingly understood as critical in terms of both ideology and security. Today, Israel’s Knesset is as conservative and religiously oriented as it has ever been in the country’s history. Anti-Arab, anti-refugee, and homophobic comments are common.
And, yet, the prevailing atmosphere among the settlers is that of persecution.
“We have been exposed to a terror attack on Judaism from the representatives of the state of Israel,” radical right-wing activist Meir Ettinger wrote on his blog this month, describing tensions between the settlers and the state as a “culture war.” A high-profile hilltop youth and yeshiva dropout in his early 20s, he is also the grandson of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose ultranationalist Kach party was banned in Israel on counts of racism and incitement and listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department. “As the Shin Bet [Israel’s internal security service] repeats in our ears, ‘Jewish terror, Jewish terror, Jewish terror’ and at the same time ‘contains’ the firebombs or stones thrown daily by Arabs [at Jews], so grow the numbers of Jews who know that the hands of those in charge of their protection are covered with the blood of those murdered,” wrote Ettinger.
Ettinger was arrested on Aug. 3 along with nine other ultranationalist activists and was placed under administrative detention, a controversial policy usually reserved for Palestinians under which suspects are denied the right to a trial or informed of official charges because they are deemed terrorists. Ettinger’s underground organization, known as “The Revolt,” encourages widespread anarchy by way of attacks on Palestinian Muslims and Christians, so that the righteous can pave the way toward reviving the “Jewish kingdom,” according to Ettinger’s blog. The group’s manifesto, released for publication by the Shin Bet, claims that “it is much cheaper and quicker to destroy the state and then rebuild than it would be to fix it” and includes instructions on securing Molotov cocktails and maintaining silence during police interrogations.
The hard-line settler community responded to Ettinger’s arrest with further attacks and escalated hostility toward the state. On Aug. 13, price taggers torched a tent belonging to a Palestinian Bedouin family, leaving on a nearby rock the phrase “administrative revenge” in reference to the process of administrative detention under which Ettinger had been placed.
Chaya Shmidov, a 28-year-old teacher in a sapphire blue dress and matching hat, told me recently that state discrimination against religious Jews is endemic. She recalled a friend who had demonstrated against government demolitions of a settlement being attacked with tear gas by the army and police responsible for overseeing the operation, and then being jailed for days. “How do I feel about it? How do you want me to feel about it?” she said. “We hope that one day the state will recognize us properly and say, ‘Wow, these people are truly self-sacrificing.’” Shmidov lives in Ahiya, an illegal outpost some 20 miles north of Ramallah, comprising dozens of wooden homes and caravans.
Shmidov told me that in July her neighbor, Aviya Morris, visited the Temple Mount and in a clash with Muslims screamed at them, “Mohammed is a pig!” — causing the police to immediately intervene and arrest her. “While they were screaming at Aviya, ‘Itbah al-Yahud’ — ‘Slaughter the Jews’ — and ‘Allahu akbar,’ she just got a little annoyed, and she was the one who was arrested!”
Morris’s husband, Raphael, 20, said that since the Duma attack, Israeli security forces have installed a surveillance balloon in the area to watch the settlers and are posted “all throughout the roads of Judea and Samaria all the time, waiting to catch us.” Raphael Morris admitted that he had been involved in “incidents” against Palestinians, though he wouldn’t specify what kind.
A particularly sore subject for Raphael Morris and his fellow ideologues is the 2005 withdrawal of settlers from Gaza. In one of Israel’s most controversial missions, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the unilateral disengagement on the argument that the thousands of Israeli troops needed to guard Gaza’s Jewish settlements posed a security threat that also worked to devalue the democratic value of the state. In emotional scenes that the Israeli media is remembering this month on the 10-year anniversary of the disengagement, the Israeli army evacuated some 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gush Katif bloc of Gaza, some by force, leaving behind razed homes. Morris and those like him still refer to it as “the expulsion.”
He sees Gush Katif as a cautionary tale that Israel can and will uproot its own people. And he believes that a similar process is now taking place in the West Bank with small-scale demolitions of hilltop settlements, though few expect the government to repeat the “mistake” of complete withdrawal from the territory. Morris said he is more determined than ever to fortify the settlement enterprise and to “find a solution to the conflict by expanding settlements here, slowly, slowly.”
It’s a common theme among settlers in the West Bank that they are a protective buffer between Israel and Palestinian terrorism. But in the end, they see their community’s essential justification as drawing from religion, not security or politics. “It is even written in the Torah that the Jews would be spread throughout the world and then will return back home to Eretz Israel,” Miriam Schwartz, a 40-year-old settler from Uruguay in a long floral skirt who was holding her toddler, told me as we waited under a hot late-summer sun above the Jordan Valley. We were standing at a bus stop that doubles as a pickup point for Israeli hitchhikers. The green station was covered in graffiti reading, “Kahane lives,” “Death to Arabs,” and “Price Tag.”
A woman going Schwartz’s way invited her, her daughter, and three others to pile into her car. The driver promptly requested that one of the passengers read a travel-sized laminated copy of the “Prayer for the Road,” a Jewish prayer asking for a safe journey, typically recited at the start of a flight, boat journey — or long car ride. “This prayer is especially important,” said the driver, booking it full speed along a winding road toward Jerusalem. “These days, we only have God to help us.”
*Corrected, Aug. 26, 2015: The Israeli government agreed to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank in 2003 as part of the Roadmap for Peace plan. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Israel agreed to a settlement freeze in the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Photo credit: Oren Ziv/Getty Images