BEIT El, West Bank — They make headlines for “price tag” hate crimes against Palestinians or for clashing with Israeli troops at outpost evacuations.
In fact, the so-called “hilltop youth” — who seek to settle every corner of the biblical land of Israel — have long been identified as a national security threat placed under the jurisdiction of the highest levels of law enforcement.
But in recent years, some government officials have begun shifting their approach, considering the root causes that have led hundreds of teenagers to abandon their homes for the West Bank hilltops and recognizing that tackling the phenomenon also requires an education-based approach.
One of the Education Ministry-backed programs quietly trailblazing this line of thinking is Etgar Beit El, founded in 2015.
There are roughly 440 schools that offer Etgar classes to struggling students or dropouts, giving teenagers who don’t fit into traditional educational frameworks an opportunity to pass the Bagrut high school matriculation exam along with the holistic support necessary to get their lives back on track. But only the one in the central West Bank settlement of Beit El, founded in 2015, works primarily with hilltop youth.
“Our thesis is that hilltop youth are essentially at-risk youth,” said Menachem Lev, who chairs the Beit El Local Council’s Education Department overseeing Etgar.
“Just like some dropouts end up in Lifta [an abandoned Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem] or Cats Square in Jerusalem [a downtown hangout], others end up on the [West Bank] hilltops, and they should be treated the same way,” Lev, 59, said, pointing out that many of his students come from troubled homes or have undergone significant traumatic experiences as children.
Nonetheless, hilltop youth are probed “pretty much as terrorists” by the police’s Major Crimes Unit and sometimes even the Shin Bet security service, whereas “typical” at-risk youth are investigated by the lower levels of law enforcement in cooperation with the Welfare and Education ministries, Lev lamented.
“While there are plenty of programs and resources dedicated to typical dropouts, we are just about the only one that also works with hilltop youth, and we do so through a philosophy of education,” he added.
Going out to the hilltops
That philosophy was on full display when The Times of Israel visited Etgar Beit El last month.
It was admittedly strange to see several dozen teenage boys with large woolen skullcaps and long, unkempt sideburns hunched over their desks in makeshift caravan classrooms taking the Bagrut exam.
Many of these boys would likely be spending the night in some of the West Bank’s most notorious outposts. But at that moment, they were students just like thousands of others across the country seeking to obtain the accreditation necessary for just about any path they might choose to take in life.
Of the several hundred hilltop youth that the security establishment believes trot through the West Bank outposts, Etgar Beit El currently serves roughly 30 of them.
While the program had initially been established to serve “typical” at-risk youth, Lev said that officials in the Justice Ministry reached out to him amid the backdrop of the July 2014 Duma terror attack — in which a pair of Israeli teens have been charged for firebombing a Palestinian home, killing a mother, father and infant child sleeping inside — and asked if his program could begin working with hilltop youth as well. These teenage drop-outs, largely from national religious yeshiva high schools, quickly became the vast majority of Etgar Beit El’s students.
“Most of these kids are between grades 10 and 12 and arrive here after being passed from one school to another,” Lev said.
While just about all of his students were in the Beit El caravans that day taking the Bagrut, Lev acknowledged that the campus is not usually full.
Because for Etgar Beit El, the classroom walls extend out to the outposts where many of the students spend much of their time. Lev said his program’s six teachers reach roughly half a dozen wildcat hamlets between Shiloh in the central West Bank and Itamar in the northern West Bank.
“These kids aren’t able to sit all day in a classroom, so they learn in small groups both here and on the hilltops,” Lev said.
Believing in them
The course load covers all the subjects tested in the matriculation exam, but Lev was quick to point out that the Bagrut is not the be-all and end-all of Etgar Beit El.
“The basis is the Bagrut, but we also provide them with a social worker whose job it is to meet with every child for one hour each week,” he said.
“The Bagrut is a tool, but it is not the essence,” chimed in Yaniv Goodman, the bearded, burly social worker. “What I’m interested in is that each person leaves this program a matured man.”
He said he sees his role as providing each of the Etgar Beit El students with an adult figure who believes in them and is willing to listen to them.
“This program allows them to feel that they’re worth something after so many figures in their lives told them the opposite and gave up on them. When they see they can pass the Bagrut and that there are people who believe in them, then they realize that the world is not their enemy and that they can succeed,” Goodman said.
He boasted that in addition to the 80 to 90 percent of students who pass the Bagrut exam, the majority of alumni go on to serve in the army.
A handful each year are barred from enlisting due to their criminal records, but Etgar Beit El staff works to get these outliers placed into national service programs.
The new pioneers
One such alum is Ori Shiloh, who stayed on at the program to fulfill his national service as a guidance counselor for the slightly younger students.
Shiloh said that before arriving at Etgar Beit El, he had been arrested so many times that he had lost count.
“I was kicked out of yeshiva in 9th grade and I quickly found myself on the hilltops — Meginei Eretz near Har Bracha and another one near Elon Moreh,” he said, naming outposts in the northern West Bank.
Shiloh, who wears long sidelocks and looks younger than his 21 years, sat in the lounge outside one of the caravan classrooms and fidgeted with a stapler as he recalled his teenage years.
“I wanted to be [on the hilltops], but I was also looking for a framework that would allow me to pass the Bagrut, and I had friends who were here,” Shiloh said, explaining how he wound up at Etgar Beit El.
While he recognized the program’s role in getting his life on track, Shiloh admitted that a part of him still missed spending nights on abandoned hilltops under the stars.
“I’m proud that I took part in settling the land. Today, I’m a little disappointed in myself that I no longer am doing it,” he said.
Shiloh explained how the physical and psychological conditions of life in the outposts eventually took their toll. “No running water, police raids in the middle of the night, arrests, warning conversations with the Shin Bet — it’s not easy, particularly when there’s no backing from the surrounding residents,” he said in reference to nearby settlements whose residents sometimes distance themselves from their harder-line neighbors in the outposts over concerns that the hilltop youth give them a bad name.
“People don’t understand who the hilltop youth are,” Shiloh said bluntly. “As kids, we learned in school about the pioneers who helped build the state. What we’re doing now is no different.”
The young man accepted the labels that many adults in his life sought to attach to him — “at-risk youth” and “dropout” to name a few — but said those identities didn’t mean they aren’t also driven by a pure ideology to settle the land.
Still fidgeting with the stapler, he said that the opposition faced by hilltop youth from the national religious communities in which they were raised “is what causes us to pull further away from the mainstream.”
“These are the communities that raised us which are throwing us out,” he said, hinting at an underlying psychological cause that has led hundreds of neglected teens to take to the hilltops and flirt with extremism.
As for price tag attacks — hate crimes committed by hilltop youth and others against Palestinians and their property in what is claimed to be in retaliation for Palestinian violence or government policies seen as hostile to the settler movement — Shiloh said it’s not a topic that often comes up in conversations at Etgar Beit El.
“Among the guys here I don’t think there’s anyone who’s taken part in that kind of thing,” he said. “But I don’t want to speak for anyone else here.”
Goodman made clear that his job is not to lecture the teens against such violence.
“I talk to them about life itself, not price tag,” Goodman said. “If they want to talk about price tag they can. They know I oppose it, but that’s not my concern.”
While he recognized that it’s law enforcement’s duty to pursue the perpetrators of price tag attacks, he lamented the “excessive” tactics employed against his students. “Just the other day, they were stopped and searched outside of Beit El just because of the way they look.”
Despite the relative success of Etgar Beit El, Lev laughed at the idea that hilltop youth are knocking on his doors to be enrolled in the program.
“The day they start coming to us will be a true miracle,” he said, adding that in the meantime, his staff is forced to take to the hilltops to find students.
He explained that such teenagers are generally suspicious of cooperating with a government-affiliated program, particularly due to concerns it might be tied with the Shin Bet — an enormously unpopular agency among hilltop youth due to what they allege are its disproportionate tactics in dealing with them.
Several of the teenagers who spoke to The Times of Israel mentioned Haro’eh Ha’ivri, another program catering to hilltop youth, in which they refuse to set foot and warn their friends to avoid.
Lev said that Haro’eh Ha’ivri has had a hard time recruiting students due to rumors that its staff is tied to the Shin Bet. While Haro’eh Ha’ivri has insisted that it works independently of the security agency, the Hakol Hayehudi national religious news site published internal government documents in 2015 showing that the head of the Shin Bet was involved in the formation of the program.
Pointing to his staff, who all sported long sidelocks, polo shirts, khaki pants and sandals, Lev added that it’s also easier for Etgar Beit El to gain the trust of the naturally suspicious teens “because we look like them.”
“We’re also the only ones who go out to the hilltops every day rather than forcing the kids to come to us,” he said. The students of Haro’eh Ha’ivri “end up not even being hilltop youth, but rather more typical dropouts. Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course.”
Haro’eh Ha’ivri declined to comment for this report.
For his part, Shiloh clarified that there are some who weren’t comfortable trusting the staff at Etgar Beit El, no matter how much they look like them.
“I have some friends that would refuse to come even here,” he said.
Take for example the Kumi Ori outpost near Yitzhar, which has made headlines in recent months due to clashes between residents and IDF soldiers. Lev admitted that the teens living there are far more radical and uninterested in the services provided by Etgar Beit El.
Even if they’re able to convince the teens that they’re not Shin Bet informants, the Etgar Beit El staff are still forced to come clean about working with other agencies in the government, which many of the ultra-nationalist hilltop youth don’t recognize.
“Every so often you’ll hear one of them throw out phrases such as, ‘Oh, he’s too government-connected’ or ‘He works too much with the establishment,’ but for the most part they respect our teachers,” Lev said.
The Beit El education chair recalled one instance, though, in which his program had briefly lost the trust of its students.
Several years ago, the students were on a planned trip to the central Israeli town of Nehalim. Some of the teens had administrative orders barring them from being in places other than their hometown or Beit El but figured that they’d be safe because the trip was planned by their school. But when they arrived at their destination, a police car pulled up behind them and out came officers to chase them down.
“I told the officers afterward, ‘What are you, idiots? You know how much time it takes us to build trust in them. The kids were wary of coming here in the first place and then they find out that the cops are following them,'” Lev recalled. “But soon after we regained their trust.”
“I’m not here to argue with [hilltop youth] about what they do, I simply say to them, ‘Look, you have a lot of free time, let us offer you ways to fill it,'” he continued.
“In this way, both sides win because we get them off the hilltops for a bit and they also are able to pass the Bagrut and receive some direction for their lives.”
Who’s in charge?
Avi Arieli, who headed the Shin Bet’s so-called “Jewish Division,” which combats non-Arab terrorism, from 2009 to 2013, lauded the work of Etgar Beit El as providing a net benefit in the effort to combat hilltop youth violence.
However, he was quick to point out that the staff’s refusal to warn students against returning to the hilltops after each day of learning was a serious mistake.
Highlighting the inherent illegality of these outposts established in sensitive security areas without the government’s approval, Arieli argued that “it’s very easy for these kids to fall into a life of crime because they’re in a setting that itself is illegal.”
“The moment in which a 16- or 18-year-old becomes the ‘responsible adult,’ no good can come out of it,” he said, adding that the teenagers there develop a superficial ideology but no one is around to challenge them.
While he recognized that it is not the responsibility of Etgar Beit El staff to physically drag their students away from the outposts, he argued that if the teens return to the hilltops at the end of the day, much of the positive work is negated.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one educator known for working with hilltop youth took partial issue with Arieli’s approach.
“We’re talking about a few tents here and there. What is so illegal about what they’re doing? Have any actual settlements been formed as a result of these tents?” he asked rhetorically.
“Much of the security establishment tries to view the hilltop youth as some precise phenomenon or cult, but it’s much less organized,” the educator argued, advocating instead for dealing with each child on the hilltops on an individual basis.
Troubling times ahead
Last year, Etgar Beit El enjoyed a one-time boost to its roughly NIS 300,000 ($88,000) budget, thanks to coalition funds transferred by MK Bezalel Smotrich (then of Jewish Home, now of Yamina).
It allowed Lev to offer students vocational training in addition to the Bagrut courses. The teens learned mechanics and cellphone, air conditioner and other electronics repair. The students were even treated to “heritage trips” around the country.
“These are anti-establishment kids who suddenly found themselves roaming around the Knesset and other museums,” Lev gushed. “We were connecting them to normal society.”
Moreover, with the nearly one million shekel budget, Etgar Beit El was able to hire more teachers and serve nearly 100 teenagers from the hilltops.
But the year passed, Smotrich was unable to allocate additional funds, and the special programming at Etgar Beit El ground to a halt.
With the year-long political stalemate, Lev expressed concern that his program won’t receive sufficient funding to even stay open next year.
He claimed Education Minister Rafi Peretz had promised that money for a budget would be provided, but as Lev begins preparation for next year, no such funding has arrived.
“If the security establishment thinks as it does that they are unable to handle hilltop youth and that the way to deal with them is through education, then we need the funds,” Lev said.
“The State of Israel must do everything in its power to keep this important place from shutting down,” said Beit El Mayor Shai Alon in a statement.
“The graduates of this school come out with high school diplomas and enlist in the military. I am sure that if they had not received assistance here, we would have found some of them involved in nationalist crime. I’m glad we can help these kids and ask the State of Israel to help us help them,” Alon added.
Responding to a query from The Times of Israel on the matter, the Education Ministry said it “is aware of the need for such programs, and if it receives a budgetary increase, it will work to expand the resources it is able to provide to at-risk youth.”