Nearly three months ago, a group of teenage boys allegedly left the northern West Bank settlement of Rehelim late Friday night and headed toward the nearby Tapuah Junction. There, the Shin Bet security service suspects, one of them hurled a large stone that crashed through the windshield of a passing vehicle, striking Aisha Rabi in the head and killing the 47-year-old Palestinian mother of eight.
The boys are students at the Pri Haaretz yeshiva high school, which was established over three years ago in Rehelim.
But residents of the settlement as well as those familiar with the community say that Rehelim has little to do with the boarding school that sits inside its borders.
“We allowed them to establish the yeshiva here, but this is not Yitzhar,” said 31-year-old local Elyashiv Mark, referring to a neighboring settlement pegged by the Israeli security establishment as a hotbed for extremism.
“We’re still very ideological and believe that there must be no compromising on settling the land of Israel, but we’re also more mainstream,” Mark declared in a Monday phone conversation with The Times of Israel.
“Nobody here tries to justify violence.”
Shabtay Bendet, one of the founders of Rehelim, explained that the community was established in 1991 in a similar fashion to other outposts.
“We created facts on the ground without any approval from the government and only worked tried to get permission after the fact,” said Bendet, who left the town roughly a decade ago and now works as the director of the “settlement watch” team for Peace Now, the left-wing NGO.
Commenting on the arrests of five Pri Haaretz students last week, Bendet said he had no doubt that they were “more influenced by the yeshiva than they were by the settlement.”
Mark said he and his neighbors were “shocked” when they first heard the allegations regarding Rabi’s murder.
“But without drawing conclusions regarding their legitimacy, we knew that the suspects would be from the yeshiva, and not our own children,” he added.
A council chairman of another community in the northern West Bank drew the same conclusion regarding Rehelim residents. “They might look ‘hilltop youth’ there, but they don’t act the part,” he said, referring to young far-right activists with untrimmed sidelocks and large yarmulkes known for sometimes carrying out attacks against Palestinians and even the IDF, alongside their efforts to establish outposts beyond the Green Line.
Pri Haaretz opened its doors in the fall of 2016 and is home to roughly 70 students. The boarding school was founded by Rabbi Yehuda Libman, a former resident of Yitzhar and student at its radical Od Yosef Chai yeshiva.
Libman sought to establish a program suitable for teenage boys “who might have been less interested in learning Torah 24/7,” explained one member of Rehelim’s local assembly who requested anonymity.
A student featured in the school’s recruitment video describes the yeshiva as offering “a combination of (love for) the Land of Israel, a connection to the righteous, but also a connection to the Beit Midrash, with dancing and prayers,” using the Hebrew phrase for a place of learning.
Officials at Pri Haaretz declined The Times of Israel’s request to comment for this article and rabbis have instructed students not to speak with the press.
“While of course (Libman) still created a serious and intense program, it also attracted some marginal youth who were deemed unfit for more rigorous yeshivas,” the assembly member explained.
He said that residents had recognized the possibility of troubled youth migrating into Rehelim when Libman came to them with his request to establish the boarding school in Rehelim.
“A number of families strongly objected to the idea of the yeshiva,” the assembly member said. “But ultimately, a majority thought Libman could really help such youth and they voted to accept his request.”
The Rehelim residents agreed to a three-year trial period and decided that the dormitories as well as the school buildings would be located on the outskirts of the settlement so as not to overly affect the locals.
“Overall, though, people trusted Libman,” said Mark.
The rabbi had once been a “dominant” figure in hilltop youth circles, Bendet said.
However, he slowly lost his credibility among the most hardcore right-wing activists. In 2014, a group of Israeli youth from an outpost outside Yitzhar ransacked a nearby Border Police base, clashing with troops who had earlier demolished a pair of illegal structures of theirs.
“The youth saw Libman as having tried to mediate between them and the soldiers, rather than taking their side,” Bendet said.
Shortly after the incident, the rabbi left Yitzhar and moved to the nearby settlement of Migdalim.
With his connection to Yitzhar along with the fact that he’s also a lieutenant colonel in the IDF reserves, Libman is still seen in Rehelim as someone “connecting between the radical and the more statesmanlike worlds,” Bendet summarized.
However, the trust the residents placed in the rabbi was quickly tested. In September 2016, the Walla news site published a video showing Pri Haaretz students damaging a nearby Palestinian olive grove.
“We worried then that it would be the start of many problems, but there hadn’t been anything since,” said the assembly member.
While one defense official acknowledged that Pri Haaretz has remained out of the headlines for the past several years, he said it did not mean the yeshiva had fallen off the security establishment’s radar.
“Some of the rabbis and students there believe in ‘Torat Hamelech,'” the official charged, referring to a book compiled at Yitzhar’s Od Yosef Chai yeshiva that suggests that Jewish law permits killing non-Jews in certain circumstances.
The defense official also pointed out that far-right Yitzhar rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh was brought in as a guest lecturer at Pri Haaretz in the past year.
Critics blame Ginsburgh’s writings — including a pamphlet that praises Baruch Goldstein, a settler who killed 29 Muslim worshipers at a West Bank shrine in 1994 — for fueling attacks by extremist Jews against Palestinians in the West Bank.
“We totally disagree with such beliefs and many of us were rather annoyed to find out that Ginsburgh was allowed into Pri Haaretz,” said Mark.
But Bendet said that Rehelim and the broader settlement movement is not completely free of responsibility for violence, which peaked with Rabi’s murder in October.
“Just about no one thinks that such acts are okay, but there is an overall silence to them that legitimizes them to a degree,” the former Rehelim founder-turned-Peace Now activist said.
“The response isn’t ‘What have those youths done?’ Instead it’s ‘Why are they picking on us?'” Bendet argued.
Such sentiment was reflected by Likud lawmaker Nava Boker, who was one of the few members of the government to even respond to the Shin Bet’s Sunday announcement that the five arrested Pri Haaretz students were suspected of involvement in Rabi’s October 12 murder.
“Every day stones are thrown at vehicles in the West Bank and if you are wondering why you don’t hear about it, it’s because it is Palestinians stoning Jews,” wrote Boker in a tweet in which she also compared the Shin Bet to the Soviet KGB for its treatment of the suspects.
The teens’ attorneys claim their clients have been violently interrogated over the past week. On Tuesday, the two suspects nabbed in the second round of arrests tied to Rabi’s murder were allowed to meet with their lawyers for the first time. The other three arrested on December 30 went nearly a week before seeing counsel.
Israeli law allows authorities to delay an attorney visit for a terrorism suspect by up to 21 days — subject to court appeal. On Sunday, the Rishon Lezion District Court ordered all five teens kept in custody until Thursday.
With the initial interrogations wrapping up, a better understanding of what lies ahead for the students is expected in the coming days.
All this comes as Rehelim prepares to debate whether to extend its three-year contract with Pri Haaretz.
“Of course, the court’s ruling regarding the youths’ involvement in the affair will be a significant factor in deciding whether the yeshiva will remain,” concluded the Rehelim assembly member.