Targeting Terror in the West Bank: Start with the Hilltop Youth

Guest post by Joel K. Day

Price tag graffiti on a Palestinian house near the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Levona. By Oren Rozen.
Price tag graffiti on a Palestinian house near the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Levona. By Oren Rozen.

Last week, the world stood horrified at a gruesome arson attack against a Palestinian family, which took the life of an eighteen-month old child. In the dead of night, masked men reportedly barricaded the door to the family’s home and hurled Molotov cocktails inside. The arsonists spray-painted a Star of David and “revenge” on the burning building while the family screamed for help.

The attack is the most recent example of a campaign of intimidation, vandalism, arson, and murder – vigilantism against both Palestinians and the Israeli state. The UN estimates that 315,000 people in 110 Palestinian communities are at high or moderate risk of such settler violence. A graffiti ‘Price Tag‘, is commonly left behind as a signature at vandalized sites, to indicate that the act is the price to be paid for Palestinian transgressions or IDF betrayals.

Despite the frequency of these incidents, there remains controversy over exactly who is to blame for these crimes. Palestinians lay blame at the feet of all settlers – a Palestinian official called the attack “a direct consequence of decades of impunity given by the Israeli government to settler terrorism.” Yet, wide variation exists among Jewish settlers, from secular suburbanites, to Haredi Ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionists. If all of these groups are equally to blame, forced disengagement from the entire West Bank is the only policy solution that will end the violence – offering little hope for stemming Price Tag terrorism, at least in the short term. But, if only a handful are responsible for the violence, then perhaps action against particular types of settlers would eliminate this particular form of violence. A puzzle thus surfaces in the midst of tragedy – exactly what types of settlers are engaging in Price Tag vigilantism and how should the government respond to them?

For instance, I found in my own fieldwork in the West Bank that secular, Ultra-Orthodox, and religious Zionist settlements are not substantially involved in vigilantism or the Price Tag movement. These settlers have a good quality of life, political representation, and military protection that disincentivizes and restrains vigilante violence against Palestinians. Rather, a group of settlers known as the “Hilltop Youth” sustain the Price Tag movement. The Hilltop Youth are purposefully disconnected from mainstream settlement life – they have their own rabbis and erect illegal outposts in the hills surrounding Palestinian villages, often without water, electricity or IDF presence. As Pedahzur and Perliger show, the Hilltop Youth are “isolated communities completely detached from the state authorities and mainstream culture.” In addition to violence against Palestinians, their fringe rabbis encourage violent disobedience against the secular Israeli state, resulting in attacks that punish Israelis for West Bank disengagement while seeking to simultaneously cleanse the land of non-Jews.

The rise of the Hilltop Youth thus poses a serious Catch 22 for the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One the one hand, as Israel offers minor concessions to the Palestinians, we can bet on a rise in Price Tag retribution as “revenge.” Incremental removal of outpost settlements would actually escalate the type of deadly attacks that Israel is trying to stem. On the other hand, if Israel doesn’t take down all Hilltop outposts, but merely jails isolated individuals, the hub of Price Tag operations will continue and their success at preventing West Bank disengagement will spur similar actions in the future.

In an influential Foreign Affairs article, Byman and Sachs argue for a three-fold strategy to combat the Hilltop Youth, including 1) targeting them as “terrorists”; 2) Encouraging moderate rabbis to ostracize and cut off radicals; and 3) isolating the outpost movement from settler leadership. Last week’s event marked the first time Prime Minister Netanyahu described the campaign as “terrorism,” joining the push by the political left to legally classify such attacks alongside actions by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Now begins the hard work of dismantling the outpost terror network while trying to prevent Price-Tag retaliation throughout the West Bank. The only way to solve this Catch-22 is through a forceful military removal of 100% of the illegal outposts (this would include, for example, Yitzhar, but leave the larger permanent blocks in the Jerusalem Envelope). The disengagement must be coordinated, akin to the Gaza withdrawal, so as to remove all outposts in one fell move. Such decisive action against the network would prevent settlement “Whack a Mole,” which would result from a policy of gradual removal. Israel must then commit to religious and political amputation of the Hilltop Youth. Moderate rabbis must engage in programs to combat militant ideologies. Likewise, pro-settlement political groups like the Jewish Home party must stridently remove Hilltop ideologues from their leadership, so as to clearly demarcate mainstream settlements from violent vigilantes.

Thus, the Israeli government can stop the Hilltop Youth through a massive uprooting and demolition of the outpost terror network, with support from religious and right-wing elites. While such action will not go far enough for those blaming all settlers for vigilantism, it will improve the security of the Palestinian people, prevent future acts of terrorism, and perhaps unravel one more kink in the Gordian knot that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Joel K. Day is an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

  1. that’s an option. a more cynical one would be to let them be, and use their presence to discredit acts of violence against noncombatants by the state itself.

      1. By sub-text, you must mean my allusion to acts of violence by the state.
        Ones that I believe are both unjustified, as they are often against noncombatants, and unproductive, as they increase the number of new enemies faster than eliminating old ones. Very relevant if you believe either of those things.

          1. Please don’t try to play dumb. You know that noncombatants exist, and do get hurt very often in security operations, and the effect this has on the political views and motivation of their families and acquaintances.

            I’d be happy to honestly and openly share my views what I’m sure we both agree is an important issue, and to listen to yours and make an honest effort to understand and sympathize and integrate what you have to say into my understanding of the world.

          2. I understood your comment to indicate, or attempt to indicate, that all of IDF defensive measures or those of other legally constituted bodies, are directed solely against non-combatants. If you admit that there exists terror, or at the least, offensive/aggressive violent protest activity that is intended to severely injure and even kill not only soldiers but Jewish civilians, then there is something to discuss.

          3. Thanks for being willing to listen.

            I said “often”, not “all”. One of the things I had in mind was the excursions into Gaza which involved dropping bombs in crowded places.

            Obviously there exists violence by Palestinians. That sounds like an exaggeration to me. I don’t know of a single person, who advocates what I would call a more rationalized approach by Israel, who denies that there is violence on both sides, including violence directed at random civilians, aka terror.

            I see a pretty wide spectrum between non-violent protest activity, protest activity that gets out of control, group battles against security forces whose legitimacy is in question, group battles against security forces whose legitimacy is real, gray areas inbetween, gray areas to the side when the local crowd is a third party to a conflict between two other parties (for instance, Israeli security forces and a specific terrorist group), and then gets caught up in the fighting.

            It sounds to me, and maybe I am misunderstanding, that what you were saying lumps paints all Palestinians as aggressors / terrorists / etc.

            Underlying this is the big question of how far you think Israeli and Palestinian claims on the land extend, and how you would resolve the expectation of democracy, and the practical need to compromise, and the special nature of Israel — since in this case the state in this case exists for the protection of Jews, for obvious historical reasons. But it’s absurd, in my opinion, to think that this goes so far as to allow Israel to expel their Arab population.

            It’s a problem I’m sure you know a lot more about than me, but my point of view, from the U.S., is that a compromise based on acknowledging the legitimacy of the Arab population’s interests is a something that’s required for any kind of peace, and peace in turn is required for Israel to have a long-term future.

            So this brings me back to my perception, again from the US, when Israeli’s complain that Americans critical of Israeli policies don’t “understand” what to us looks like a heavy handed, rather inhumane, approach to security — which again, seems like it basically creates enemies more than secures any kind of lasting compromise.

            I have a feeling you will tell me about the history of Arab aggression against Israel. Those wars were fought and Israel won decisively. I’m saying this just to clarify the way I’m seeing it from my point of view. What’s happening today is something else.

            Best Regards.

          4. I’ll be short: to use “excursions into Gaza” is to simply place yourself, if you did that purposely, outside discourse. To use “expel Arab population” is to further distance yourself. Thanks for saving my time in attempting to point out to you more complex matters.

  2. Two points.

    The first is that, as you note, we really do not know who perpetrated this act of terror. I had expected the police, as they do when Jews are attacked by drive-by shootings, cars ploughing into bus stops and suicide-bombers, to announce that “all avenues of investigation are open”. Not because they are but because that is the fair and just way to treat an incident when the persons(s) involved is not caught at the spot and time. In this last incident, for example, if the house was not on the periphery of the village but close to the center, any detective would ask ‘why would amateur terrorists endanger themselves to walk so far in?’. And given that the husband was placed in Beer Sheva’s Soroka (being helicoptered out, by-passing Jerusalem (?)) and the wife and children placed in Ramat Gan’s Sheba, the next question anyone would be asking is why? What is so special about the husband?

    The second is that as bad as Jewish terror acts are, the matter of ‘is Zionism being stained?’ should be discussed in perspective. If the Arabs of the PLO, Hamas, etc. are still being supported in their political aims despite their terror acts (and I won’t even enter into any possible comparison), why are Jews so nervous?

  3. An interesting and well-written piece, thank you.

    Part of the issue faced is, as you address in your final point, the issue of generalisation. The world rarely sees the suffering and oppression faced by Palestinian citizens, the majority of which have had no hand in the escalations and developments of their conflict. In the UK we tend to hear only of the most severe attacks and extreme marginals, rather than, say, the day to day actualities of destitution in Gaza.

    As well as tackling the radicals, we must endeavour to challenge the dialogue surrounding Palestine, and alleviate the basic anguishes of those caught in the middle, desperately lacking in resources and opportunities as a result.

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