Guest post by Joel K. Day
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.