AHIYA, West Bank — Raphael Morris, a 20-year-old religious settler from the outpost of Ahiya, has for years engaged in a “holy war,” he tells The Daily Beast. He’s battling to rid Israel of its non-Jewish elements and expand the settlement enterprise in Judea and Samaria—the biblical term for the land on the West Bank of the Jordan River that once belonged to the ancient kingdom of Israel.
Six years ago, Morris arrived at a nearby outpost with 10 other teenagers and learned to work the vineyard, build houses, and “in a number of instances” created a line of defense against the surrounding Palestinian villages. “The Arabs knew not to mess with us,” he says.
This area of the West Bank is home to dozens of outposts initiated in defiance of the Israeli government by mainly Orthodox teenagers and young families known as “hilltop youth.” But these communities are also breeding a zealous culture of Jewish militancy that has led to intensifying attacks on Palestinian towns.
Ahiya is only a short distance from the village of Duma, where on July 31 Jewish extremists firebombed two Arab homes in the dead of night.
One of the houses was empty, but in the other four members of the same family were sleeping in one bedroom. Eighteen-month-old Ali Saad Dawabshah was immediately burned to death, and his father, Saad Dawabshah, succumbed two weeks later to the third-degree burns that covered more than 80 percent of his body. The mother, Reham, and her 4-year-old son, Ahmad, remain in critical condition in an Israeli hospital and few family members expect them to survive.
On the walls of the house the arsonists left graffiti reading “Revenge!” and “Long Live the Messiah” next to a Star of David.
The brutal attacks have shocked Israel, prompting nationwide “soul searching” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians condemn the act as “Jewish terror.” But such incidents are neither so new nor so isolated as these denunciations would make them seem.
They reflect the growth of the so-called “Price Tag” movement, whose adherents have vowed since 2005 that every time the Israeli government attempts to curb the West Bank settlement movement, often under international pressure, they will exact a “price” in the form of attacks on Palestinian properties or persons.
The Duma arson incidents followed a week in which Israeli court orders to demolish two buildings in the West Bank settlement of Bet El were carried out—only to have Netanyahu announce hours later that he would approve the construction of 300 more houses in the same location.
Almost two weeks after that Duma attack, no suspects have been brought to court. Human-rights activists and Palestinians say this is consistent with a generally lax Israeli policy regarding Jewish extremists, in comparison to that of intense Israeli army raids against Palestinian terrorists in attempts to force suspects out, and, many say, create a system of collective punishment.
Fewer than 8 percent of the cases of Jewish attacks on Palestinians have resulted in indictments and a number are known to have been ignored, with no proper investigation, according to the nongovernmental organization Yesh Din.
Attacks have ranged from vandalizing churches or mosques to uprooting olive trees, or, as in the case of Duma, direct attacks evidently meant to kill or injure individuals. Udi Levy, the chief commander of a government task force formed to prevent the settlers from carrying out attacks, tells The Daily Beast that because the groups often send their youngest members into action, it is difficult to prosecute them as minors, which may lead to a general sense of impunity.
Since its founding in 2013, the task force has succeeded in reducing the number of incidents, according to Levy, but their severity has gone up, with 43 out of the 141 attacks over the past year carried out with the intention to harm people.
On Sunday, the Israeli police and Shin Bet security service arrested nine settlers and raided seven homes in two hardline settlements in the vicinity of Duma as part of an official crackdown. The previous week, three ultra-nationalists were arrested in Israel on suspicion of participation in an underground movement planning to attack Palestinians and take down the Israeli government.
One of the accused is 24-year-old Meir Ettinger, the grandson of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the ultra-nationalist politician whose Kach party was outlawed in Israel and declared a terrorist organization by the United States.
A yeshiva school dropout who, like many fellow members, is believed to have undergone radicalization with his “hilltop youth” peers, Ettinger was on the Shin Bet’s most-wanted list for belonging to a “Price Tag” offshoot organization known as “the Revolt.”
The group’s documents include detailed instructions on how to secure Molotov cocktails and remain silent during police investigations so that the group can carry out its final goal of overthrowing what its members see as a “rotten” Israeli government scheming to disconnect the Jewish people from their natural birthright.
In a blog on the right-wing news site The Jewish Voice, Ettinger described the state crackdown against militant settlers as “a terror attack on Judaism.”
He condemned politicians such as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who called for Israel to unite against racism and hatred in the wake of the Duma attack and a separate assault the previous day in which an ultra-Orthodox man went on a stabbing rampage at the Jerusalem Pride Parade, killing a 16-year-old girl named Shira Banki.
Ettinger wrote that “Reuven Rivlin has attempted to obscure the contradiction” between a Jewish state and what those words actually mean. “He tries to appropriate the Jewish heritage under the wings of the rotten culture of the State of Israel, and clings to all false and lying connections between Judaism and democracy,” Ettinger wrote.
Ettinger’s hardline views are fiercely supported in social media and among pro-settler youth in the West Bank and Israel who have felt, especially since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, that both the government and their own rabbinical leadership has abandoned them for lowly politics. Consequently, they claim, it is up to them to independently purify both themselves and the land in expectation of the Jewish messiah.
“These anti-clerical kids are talking about popular spontaneous responses to situations that are unacceptable” in their view, said Dr. Shlomo Fischer, a professor at Hebrew University and expert on Jewish extremism, at a recent press conference. They may act for revenge, or as part of an ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, or just from a lack of tolerance of other religions in the holy land, which they consider to be idolatrous.
The propaganda of groups like Price Tag and the Revolt, in fact, is comparable to that of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. They claim to offer a “pure and authentic experience of romantic religious nationalism for many ultra-Orthodox dropouts,” said Fischer.
Michal Luz from Bet El suggests the loosely organized militants on the hilltops and settlements hope the lack of formal official leadership will be an opportunity for Jews to finally separate their righteous ideologies from politics, and avoid the negotiating process that every so often results in demolition of settlement neighborhoods.
“I’m optimistic,” she says, “and I know that if we stand for ourselves, eventually the government will accept us.”