Arrest of Settlers with Explosives Sparks Fear of Jewish Underground

Almost 20 years after Israel was shaken by the exposure of a Jewish underground in the West Bank, some fear that another one could be emerging.

In the past few days, police detained four Jews from settlements in the Hebron Hills region. They were suspected of conspiring to plant a booby-trapped cart in a Palestinian girls school in Jerusalem.

If the incident does prove to be part of a larger movement, it could complicate a tentative opening toward peace- making, and undercut public support for the embattled settlement movement.

The first Jewish underground was exposed as a result of thorough intelligence work by the General Security Service inside the “hard core” of the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank.

In contrast, the latest alleged plot was detected by chance, when police came upon a vehicle they thought was acting strangely. Security forces reportedly had no prior knowledge of any Jewish terrorist plot.

Several days ago, a regular police patrol spotted a van, of a type frequently used by the settlers as security vehicles, stopping near the Palestinian Al-Mukassid Hospital.

The passengers tried to detach from the car a cart laden with explosives. It reportedly was set to explode at 7:35 a.m., when the street would be humming with girls on their way to a nearby school.

The four are suspected of plotting to carry out a terrorist attack. The suspects denied the charges, and said they were framed and tortured by their investigators.

A Jerusalem court extended their remand.

It was the first time since the intifada began in September 2000 that security forces have laid their hands on Jews suspected of plotting terror attacks against Palestinians.

Had the incident occurred in a vacuum, it might have been overlooked as a marginal event. However, there are increasing signs of renewed Jewish vigilantism in the West Bank.

Eight Palestinian school students and a school attendant were wounded last March in an explosion in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher. An unknown organization calling itself “The Revenge of the Infants” claimed responsibility for the attack, apparently in revenge for a Palestinian terrorist attack in the fervently Orthodox Beit Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Seven Palestinians have been killed in suspected terror attacks against Palestinians in the past two years, and 10 have been wounded.

None of those cases has been cracked, but police now are checking whether the four settlers from the Hebron region are associated with the previous attacks.

The settlement establishment was shocked by the arrests. Yesha, a group representing Jewish settlers, issued a statement sharply condemning the alleged plot.

Although no charges have been pressed, Yesha issued a statement saying that “such acts are faulty and negative from every possible aspect, both legally and morally.”

The settlement establishment has good reason to be nervous. One of the byproducts of the intifada has been greater public identification with the settlements. Many Israelis now believe that the Palestinians are not fighting the settlements as much as they are fighting Israel itself, with the settlers taking the brunt of the attacks on the front lines.

The re-emergence of Jewish vigilantism in the territories could cause heavy damage to sympathy for the settlement cause.

When the Jewish underground was exposed in the 1980s, Yisrael Harel, then Yesha’s chairman, was one of its most outspoken critics — although some underground members were among his best friends.

However, Harel told JTA this week that he doubts the four men detained in the incident at the girls school had done anything similar to the subversive activities by members of the 1980s underground.

“I do not have any inside information,” said Harel, a resident of Ofra in the West Bank, “but I suspect that even if these people are guilty, they represent only themselves.”

Some of the settlers in the Hebron region are “freaks,” Harel said, but they usually express their peculiarity through music, relatively free use of drugs and sex and an inclination to work in nature, for example by grazing herds in traditional biblical style.

Most Hebron Hills residents have not shown any exceptional militancy against the Palestinians, Harel said.

That, of course, is a matter of political perception. Legislator Yossi Sarid, the head of the Meretz Party, said after the arrest that the incident could be another example of the weeds of terrorism growing in the settlements.

Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Preventive Security Service, questioned recently why Israeli security forces were so effective at nabbing Palestinian terrorists, but were unable to expose Jewish ones.

The answer, of course, is that thousands of Palestinians are engaged in violence, as compared with a handful of Jewish militants.

“Jewish terrorism is marginal compared to other things which have happened during the intifada,” said Ehud Sprinzak, dean of the School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Academic Center in Herzliya and an expert on Jewish terrorism. “I suppose that had there been a serious Jewish underground,” the security forces “would have invested more” in dealing with it.

Even if the detainees represent only themselves, they do reflect a current among Jewish settlers. In the past year and a half, public figures in the territories, among them influential rabbis, have spoken of revenge as a means of deterrence — particularly when they feel the government isn’t doing enough to deter attacks.

That was the rationale behind militant attacks such as the burning of Palestinian fields, vandalism against Palestinian cars, and frequent acts of provocation by Jewish residents of Hebron against their Arab neighbors.

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