YITZHAR, West Bank — Ezri Tubi, the 45-year-old spokesman of the Israeli West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, has had a busy week.
Since last Friday’s firebombing of a home in the West Bank village of Duma, in which 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsha was killed, and the subsequent arrests of right-wing activists with a connection to Yitzhar, Tubi has been fielding calls from reporters.
“Visit, but please don’t walk around and talk to people,” he tells journalists over the phone. “The people of Yitzhar are tired of talking to reporters.”
That’s because, Tubi says, a reporter with an agenda who shows up looking for extremism will usually find what they’re looking for.
Home to about 240 families, Yitzhar has become ground zero in the public perception of extremist “Hilltop youth,” young people from religiously observant families who move to settlement outposts, resist soldiers’ attempts to evacuate them, and intermittently carry out “price tag” hate crime attacks on Palestinian, Christian and Israeli targets.
But Tubi has a message for reporters. First, he says, the people of Yitzhar overwhelmingly condemn the murder of the Palestinian toddler, which, he said, violates the commandment of “Thou shalt not kill.”
Second, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, the head of one of Yitzhar’s two yeshivas — under whom the arrested alleged Jewish extremist leader Meir Ettinger studied — does not condone price tag attacks, as was widely reported.
“I’ve personally heard him say that this price tag is a stupid thing to do many times and on many occasions in the past year.”
The village of Yitzhar is quiet on a Thursday afternoon. A handful of people are milling about the “co-op supermarket” while a mother pushes her baby past the organic flour mill. A sign at the entrance points visitors to handmade art for sale and the “Ben Porat winery.”
Still, if you look for signs of extremism you can find them. In the settlement’s bus stop, among innocuous graffiti, you will find the statements “Overthrow the government,” “We must take our fate into our own hands,” and “Revenge.”
Tubi does not deny that there are people in Yitzhar who hold anti-government views.
“They oppose the state of Israel because they feel the state of Israel should be a religious one. They’re mainly around Yitzchak Ginsburgh’s yeshiva, Od Yosef Hai. It’s a small group of people.” (The IDF took over the yeshiva for a year until June 2015 after a string of anti-Arab incidents of vandalism in the surrounding Palestinian villages and attacks against Israeli security personnel by local settlers and yeshiva students.)
According to the Knesset website, in the 2015 elections, 74 percent of Yitzhar residents voted for the far-right party Yachad, headed by Michael Ben-Ari and Eli Yishai (which failed to clear the Knesset threshold and therefore won no seats), 20% voted for the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home and 2% voted for the Likud. In addition, there were four residents who voted for Green Leaf (Aleh Yarok), the marijuana legalization party, and one who chose the United (Arab) List.
Asked whether there are extremists in Yitzhar, Tubi says that he himself is an extremist.
“Ten years ago, I had an order from a court not to be in Judea and Samaria. I had many trials. They wanted to demolish an outpost, Havat Gilad, and there were clashes. I was involved in the clashes.”
“I’m sorry I don’t fit your image of an extremist. I’m not frothing at the mouth,” he told the Times of Israel.
Tubi grew up in Netanya, in a moderately religiously observant home. After his army service, he traveled to the Far East for a year and a half and when he returned to Israel, enrolled in a yeshiva, Machon Meir, which promotes the religious ideal of settling the land. He lives in Yitzhar with his wife Ora and five children. The couple perform musical theater together around the country for women-only audiences. Ezri plays the guitar, while his wife sings and dances.
When asked how the people of Yitzhar feel following last Friday’s murder of the Palestinian child, allegedly carried out by Jewish terrorists, and the subsequent arrests, Tubi replies, “the mood is that our friends in Tel Aviv and these left-wingers are trying to exploit this incident to continue their incitement against settlers. For the last 20-30 years they’ve been demonizing the settlers in Judea and Samaria, who nowadays are the only group of people with any ideology left apart from making money and being famous.”
According to Tubi, liberal Israelis and foreigners rarely raise the same hue and cry when Jewish blood is spilled.
“What’s the difference between this Palestinian baby and the three-month old baby [Chaya Zissel Braun] who was killed [last October in a terror attack] in Jerusalem when a Palestinian ran her over? Why was it forgotten after a few hours? Is Jewish blood cheaper?”
He says that Route 60, the main artery through the West Bank that is shared by settlers and Palestinians, is a daily site of attacks on Israelis from Yitzhar and nearby settlements.
“There is an incident almost every day. There were Molotov cocktails two days ago. Tell me, why are we the ones armed? Why are there fences around our villages but not the Palestinian villages? They’re attacking us.”
Regarding the firebombing murder in Duma, Tubi says he resents people from Tel Aviv who “give me a superior look and demand that I apologize. They should apologize. I’m not apologizing for a lunatic who did whatever he did.”
A fraught ride on the bus
The bus from Yitzhar winds through several remote settlements on its way to Ariel, including Har Bracha, and Kfar Tapuah. It also gets stuck in slow-moving traffic in the bustling Palestinian town of Hawara, where some of the store signs are in Hebrew as well as Arabic. Tubi says people from Yitzhar no longer frequent those businesses.
“We don’t trust them anymore — you go inside a shop, you don’t know if the person behind you will stab you,” he says.
The passengers on the bus are mainly settlers and soldiers. At Kfar Tapuah, a banner reads” “There will be a war over construction in Judea and Samaria. Prepare yourselves for the day of battle.”
Asked if this message is as radical as it sounds, a passenger in his 20s from Har Bracha replies, “War is just a figure of speech.”
Yes, but are there people living here who are as extremist as those depicted on the nightly news, planning to topple the government?
“I’ve heard people talk like that, but it’s a minority.”
A minority of two percent or a minority of ten percent?
“Maybe ten percent.”
At Tapuah Junction, a female soldier with a ponytail gets on the armored bus, visibly relieved to be on board.
“Welcome, brave girl,” says the driver. Soldiers are not allowed to hitchhike and as a result, spend considerable time waiting at bus stops. In April 2013, Evyatar Borovsky, a resident of Yitzhar, was stabbed to death while standing at Tapuah Junction.
A few minutes after the young woman boards, 25 kilometers south, some fellow soldiers were less fortunate. On the same highway, at the Sinjil Junction, a Palestinian motorist slammed into three soldiers on patrol, seriously wounding two of them in a deliberate car-ramming terror attack.