JERUSALEM (JTA) – Marking the close of the Fast of Gedaliah, a mournful day that commemorates the biblical-era political assassination of a Jew by another Jew, some 200 religious and secular Israelis assembled outside the Jerusalem home of Professor Ze’ev Sternhell with a blunt message: No More Gedaliahs.
Or, bringing it into the modern age, as Sternhell put it, “We do not want another Yitzhak Rabin,” referring to the 1995 assassination of the prime minister.
On Sept. 25, the Hebrew University professor, Holocaust survivor, Israel Prize winner and outspoken peace activist was the target of a pipe bomb attack suspected to have been carried out by right-wing Jewish extremists.
“Our society has a problem and we must confront it,” Sternhell said.
The attack on Sternhell appears to be part of a violent shift in strategy among the more radical elements of the Jewish settler movement. Jewish assaults on both Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank have seen a rise of late. The incidents often seem more like planned operations than spontaneous actions, experts say.
The settlers seem to be sending a message to Israeli authorities: Any operation against the settlers – specifically, any attempted evacuation of illegal outposts in the West Bank – will elicit a new type of response that is harsh and difficult to control.
“The army and the government need to know that every stone thrown at us, any action against our settlements, will not be met with as if we are suckers,” Avri Ran, a prominent figure among the more hard-core settlers, told JTA. “There is a price to be paid for attacks on Jews.”
The strategy shift can be traced to the lessons settlers learned from the experience of the Gaza Strip in 2005, when opponents of the withdrawal and residents of Gaza’s Jewish settlement bloc mostly played by the rules. They practiced passive disobedience but eschewed violence as Israeli authorities came to remove them.
But the failure of their quest to thwart Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, as well as the government’s response, left them angry and disillusioned, particularly the younger generation.
Their sense of betrayal, coupled with a view of the Jerusalem government as corrupt, has fueled an anti-authority sentiment. This has been most apparent among the so-called hilltop youth – radical young settlers who establish and occupy illegal outposts atop hills in the West Bank and refuse to leave.
The price radical settlers have sought to impose on those seeking to evict them includes setting fire to Palestinian fields and orchards, blocking roads and even fighting with Israeli soldiers. Settlers unleased a dog on one officer; another soldier had his arm broken in recent confrontations. Most dramatically, settlers attacked a Palestinian village in an incident Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described as a pogrom.
The attack, in the West Bank village of Asira al Qibliya, followed the infiltration of a Palestinian into the nearby settlement of Yitzhar, in the northern West Bank, where an empty house was set on fire and a 9-year-old Jewish boy was stabbed. In response, Yitzhar residents tore through the village, throwing rocks and opening fire, leaving several Palestinians wounded.
Using unusually strong language, Olmert responded to the recent wave of violence, including the attack on Sternhell, at a Cabinet meeting.
“An evil wind of extremism, of hatred, of malice, of violence, of running amok, of breaking the law, of contempt for the institutions of the state, is blowing through certain sections of the Israeli public and threatens Israeli democracy,” he said.
The settlers’ actions also threaten the Israeli government’s ability to carry out pledges that are part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, including commitments made to the United States and the international community to freeze settlement building and remove illegal outposts from the West Bank.
Yizhar Be’er, the executive director of Keshev, an organization that researches ideological violence in Israel, described the recent events as a Jewish intifada, using the Arabic word for uprising. He said it borrows directly from the Israeli government’s own playbook for quashing the second Palestinian intifada.
Specifically, fringe settlers are employing the deterrent doctrine sometimes used by Israel known as the “price tag”: Every aggressive act will be met by an even more aggressive and painful response.
“This is the irony of history, that the approach of the Israeli government against the Palestinians was adopted by the settlers to fight democracy,” Be’er said.
Thus, even if a single trailer is threatened with removal from a settlement, “hell will be raised,” Be’er said. That may mean fighting against the Israeli army – until now considered taboo – or fanning out to Palestinian villages to start disturbances and thereby overwhelm army and police personnel.
“In the past, only a few dozen individuals were implicated” in such behavior, Maj. Gen. Gadi Shadmi, the head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Central Command, told Israel’s daily Ha’aretz in a recent interview.
While most of the estimated 250,000 Israeli Jews living in the West Bank are law abiding, Shadmi said, the ranks of the radicals are growing.
“Today we are talking about several hundred people – a very significant change,” he said.
“These people are conspiring against the Palestinians and against security forces,” he added, making the army’s job more difficult. Shadmi charged that some segments of the settlers’ leadership, including rabbis, are giving the movement’s radical elements either tacit or outright support.
While acknowleging the rise in violent tactics, the head of the council that represents Jewish settlers in the West Bank said critics are trying to make the settler community look bad.
“It needs to be known that last year the Palestinians damaged more fields of Jews than the other way around,” said Dani Dayan of the Yesha Council.
“Let there be no misunderstanding: Any attack on Jewish or Arab property should be condemned, but there is an organized effort to delegitimize the residents of Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the biblical names for the West Bank.
Perhaps because of the negative image of settlers, the council has launched a public relations campaign with billboards across Israel that proclaim “Judea and Samaria – every Jew’s story.”
Meanwhile, within the mainstream settler movement are deep divisions over what direction to take. A leaflet recently distributed in some settlements and signed by two prominent settler leaders calls on the public to join in the fight against outpost evacuations by dispersing to exhaust security forces. The leaflet suggests blocking roads and building more outposts, and exhorts youths to take hikes in “unconventional areas” – interpreted to mean near Palestinian villages.
Rabbi Yuval Sherlow, considered a moderate leader in the religious Zionist camp of which the settlers are a key part, said members of the community’s leadership must offer support to those who reject violent confrontation.
“There is a large periphery of people,” he said, “and we need to give them ideological and religious backing so they don’t feel like they are doing something wrong in obeying the law and fighting violence.”