Inside story

Yitzhar settlement viewed as epicenter of surge in ‘price tag’ attacks

But officials in the northern West Bank community say it’s due to an influx of ‘hilltop youth’ evicted from a nearby hardcore outpost last year

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

The entrance to the settlement of Yitzhar in the West Bank. (Flash90/File)
The entrance to the settlement of Yitzhar in the West Bank. (Flash90/File)

The Israeli security establishment views the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar as responsible for the recent uptick in hate crimes against Palestinian villages, a defense official told The Times of Israel Monday.

The town of roughly 1,500 residents has become a “refuge for hilltop youth” who have been involved in most of the so-called price tag attacks in the past year, the official said. Seven instances of extensive Palestinian property destruction have been documented in the past week alone.

“Price tag” refers to vandalism and other hate crimes carried out by Jewish ultra-nationalists ostensibly in retaliation for Palestinian violence or government policies perceived as hostile to the settler movement. Palestinian olive groves, mosques, churches have been targeted by far-right vandals in recent years, as have dovish Israeli rights groups and even IDF military bases.

The young activists are often referred to as “hilltop youth” due to their practice of setting up illegal outposts on West Bank hilltops.

Hebrew graffiti proclaiming ‘We’ll take our fate into our own hands’ daubed on a vehicle in the West Bank Palestinian village of Ramun, April 23, 2018. (Israel Police)

In recent years, the settlement of Yitzhar has become one of their main hubs, and the young ideologues have established several makeshift neighborhoods on hilltops beyond the borders of the northern West Bank town.

The defense establishment official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the violent instances that have taken place over the past month had been carried out by hilltop youth from Yitzhar.

He added that in addition to the rogue settlers, students from Yitzhar’s Od Yosef Chai yeshiva have also been involved in carrying out the hate crimes. The religious institution led by US-born Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh has been long viewed by the Israeli defense establishment as a hotbed for extremism.

However, a Yitzhar official told The Times of Israel that many of the problems relating to the settlement have been the defense establishment’s doing.

‘Death to Arabs’ spray painted on the wall of a building in the West Bank Arab village of Urif in an apparent price tag attack on April 18, 2018. (Rabbis for Human Rights)

The settler leader explained that when the IDF evacuated the illegal Baladim outpost of its dozens of hilltop youth in June 2017, a senior military official initiated a meeting with Yitzhar leadership.

During the sit-down, the IDF official warned the residents that they would soon see a wave of hilltop youth moving to the settlement.

Baladim settlers had been involved in some of the more violent attacks perpetrated by Israelis in the West Bank over the last decade. The youths targeted not just Palestinians and Israeli human rights activists, but IDF troops as well.

The Yitzhar official said that in cooperation with the Welfare Ministry, the settlement has since established an informal educational-vocational program for the hilltop youth and that the number of price tag attacks had since decreased dramatically.

Shin Bet statistics published Sunday showed 2017 to be a far calmer year than the current one with eight price-tag attacks documented compared to the 13 that have already taken place in the first four months of 2018 alone.

Welfare Ministry officials have avoided publicizing their role in assisting Yitzhar as most of the hilltop youth want nothing to do with the Israeli government.

Hilltop youth members (from L-R) Yedidya Schlissel, Yehoshua Lambiasi, and Yitzhak Ettinger. (Screen capture: YouTube)

However, one official in the ministry, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed the collaboration with Yitzhar leadership. She pointed out that many of the hilltop youth come from broken homes and that the phenomenon should be handled using educational means when possible.

For his part, the Yitzhar official argued that most of the price tag attacks that have taken place over the past week have not been near the settlement.

Of the seven attacks, five of them took place dozens of miles south, in the villages of BurqaIssawiya, Luban a-Sharqiya, Beit Iksa and Ramon.

The settler leader acknowledged two instances of property defacement in nearby Burin and Urif and said the town was “taking care” of the matter.

One prominent right-winger pointed out that the recent uptick in attacks over the past month come as the Central District Court prepares to make its ruling in the coming weeks on whether to convict two ultra-nationalist activists charged with carrying out the 2015 Duma terror attack.

Illustrative: A Palestinian police member inspects the damage inside a burned-out house belonging to a key witness to an arson attack last year by Jewish extremists that killed a Palestinian family, in the West Bank village of Duma, after fire broke out in the home in the early hours of March 20, 2016. (AFP/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

Two homes in the village south of Nablus were set ablaze in the attack and the Hebrew slogans “revenge” and “long live the king messiah” were spray-painted on their walls, alongside a Star of David. Eighteen-month-old Ali Dawabsha was burned to death and father Saad Dawabsha, his wife Riham and their son Ahmed, who was 4 at the time, were critically injured. Saad died in August and Riham in September of that year, after treatment in Israeli hospitals. Ahmed, the only surviving member of the family, underwent months of treatment for severe burns.

The two defendants have claimed they confessed to the crime only after being tortured by interrogators from the Shin Bet security service.

Last week, the Central District Attorney’s Office announced that it would avoid using confessions obtained from the suspects using “special means.”

Amiram Ben-Uliel, 21, was indicted on January 3, 2016, for murder in the killing of the Dawabsha family in Duma. (Courtesy)

The prosecution is believed to have additional evidence on which to base its indictments against the two suspects, and recognized that testimony obtained through torture may not be admissible, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

According to the right-wing activist who also requested anonymity, the court’s decision to accept the prosecution’s request to drop the questionably induced confessions from the evidence deeply angered many hilltop youth, because it means the defendants’ accusations of torture.

On Sunday, police carried out an arrest in Yitzhar, dressing up as religious settlers in order to nab an unsuspecting 15-year-old boy and drag him into a van. Pictures from the scene show the car used by the cops sporting a bumper sticker that reads “No Arabs. No terror attacks,” in an ostensible effort by cops to blend in with the ultra-nationalist residents of Yitzhar.

The Honenu legal aid organization blasted the arrest as excessive, adding that the teen was released after questioning regarding an old, relatively minor charge of obstructing police officers.

The recent price tag attacks also come on the backdrop of the murders of northern West Bank settlers Raziel Shevach and Itamar Ben-Gal.

Shevach was was shot dead in a drive-by shooting on January 9 outside the Havat Gilad outpost where he lived. A month later, IDF troops shot dead Ahmad Nassar Jarrar, the suspected ringleader of the terror cell responsible for the murder of the 35-year-old father of six.

A day prior to Jarrar’s capture and killing, Ben-Gal was stabbed to death by a 19-year-old Arab-Israeli man at the Ariel Junction in the northern West Bank. The 29-year-old father of four had lived in the settlement of Har Bracha.

At Shevach’s funeral, dozens of mourners interrupted Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s eulogy with calls for “revenge.” Similar calls were heard from a number of attendees at Ben-Gal’s funeral, but they were far fewer and more subdued.

Raziel Shevach (standing) pictured with Itamar Ben-Gal (second from L) at the birthday celebration of a mutual friend. (Courtesy: Aviad Sharara)

However, rights groups point out that the Yitzhar leadership has long been unable to contain the hilltop youth residing in its community, and in fact has no interest in doing so. The left-wing NGOs also highlight the fact that no settler leaders or coalition lawmakers representing them have publicly condemned the recent rise in attacks.

The Yesh Din rights group has also slammed police “incompetence” in being unable to make a single arrest in any of the instances over the past week, saying it has “provided a tailwind for ideological crimes against Palestinians.”

In January, some 50 masked Yitzhar residents were filmed destroying over 100 olive trees outside the nearby Palestinian village of Hawara. As the settlers snapped branches off the trees, footage documented by a field worker for the Yesh Din group pans to IDF soldiers appearing to be standing by and not reacting.

In February, Israel Police began investigating a complaint that a group of settlers from Yitzhar attacked a Palestinian shepherd and killed five of his sheep in an apparent hate crime. Photos from the scene showed the shepherd from the neighboring village of Einabus with the mutilated sheep. The man told the Yesh Din rights group that he was assaulted by the settlers, who also stole a number of his animals.

A week later, a bus driver filed a police complaint after he was pepper-sprayed and beaten by a group of masked settlers after pulling over in a parking lot in Yitzhar.

No arrests have been made in any of those three cases.

While recognizing the recent spike in price tag attacks, the defense establishment official pointed out that “there has not been a second Duma.”

He said that while serious, the vast majority of price tag attacks have consisted of graffitied walls and slashed tires.

The defense official credited the absence of a serious attack to the Shin Bet’s employment of administrative orders against the hilltop youth in response to the violence.

The orders can include detention, bans from entering the entire West Bank, and bans on contacting certain individuals, as well as nightly curfews.

“Enough with administrative orders’ sprayed on the wall in an apparent ‘Price Tag’ attack, April 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of Israel Police

Sixty-three administrative orders were issued in 2017 by Israel Police, and upon recommendations from the Shin Bet, the practice has continued in 2018 with 13 more of the directives having been employed.

But right-wing activists have begun speaking out against the punitive measure, which they argue has robbed them of due process. Their criticism of the policy has also been highlighted in a considerable amount of graffiti defaming Palestinian cars throughout the West Bank.

So while the defense establishment may feel that it has quelled the most dangerous threat, it appears to have created many smaller ones in the process.

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