Yitzhar, West Bank — Motorists headed to this West Bank settlement notorious as a hotbed for radicalism were greeted last Friday afternoon by a police checkpoint at the highway turnoff. Checking for ID, one officer explained that non-residents were being turned back.
Hours earlier, Israeli security forces seized the Ode Yosef Hai yeshiva and encircled it in barbed wire, escalating an Israeli government attempt to crack down on pro-settler activists engaged in the so-called “price-tag” campaign, which aims to send a message that there’s a price for actions against settlements.
Friday’s unprecedented step reflected public outrage and soul searching over an assault last Tuesday morning by dozens of settlers against an army encampment situated as a buffer between residents of Yitzhar’s outpost and a Palestinian village.
With Torahs and texts of the yeshiva placed under lockdown, settlers at Yitzhar complained that the army was treating them as if they were Palestinian militants, and accused the security services of “collective punishment” against Jewish residents. “Cowards, go take care of the Arabs,” read a banner hung from a mobile home located on the access road to the yeshiva.
A statement by the Yitzhar settlement council called the move an “historic and hysterical” response that “crossed a line.”
“This is a desecration and a disgrace,” said Eli Weissblum, a Yitzhar resident. “A seminary and a synagogue can’t be used for any other purpose other than studying or praying.”
The Israeli army said in a statement that occupying the yeshiva was necessary because of its alleged role in rising acts of vandalism against Israeli forces and the surrounding Palestinian villages.
The move came amid rising criticism against the government for failing to snuff out the years-long “price-tag” campaign — acts of vengeance for Palestinian attacks on settlers or government efforts to curtail settlement activity. Though this most recent assault by dozens of price taggers targeted equipment on an encampment of reservist soldiers, the attackers have more often cut down Palestinian olive trees and sprayed hate graffiti on buildings and mosques. Occasionally there have been incidents of arson.
The attack on the Israel Defense Force base prompted high-profile security figures to call on the state to get tough with the price-tag activists, and on Sunday Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly said that he supported holding activists without trial in “administrative detention” — a practice used commonly against Palestinians suspected of fomenting violence against Israel.
“What is going on in the territories is Jewish terror,” said Ami Ayalon, one of six former Shin Bet directors who called for tougher tactics in a joint interview with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. “All of the other definitions coming from the prime minister, from the ministers, or the president — ‘hate crime,’ ‘bad weeds’ and such — are meaningless. Laundered words. And until they do this [enact tougher tactics], they won’t solve the problem.”
Former interior security minister Avi Dicther said that even though the acts have not been lethal, like those of Palestinian terrorists, the goal is similar: to influence the government through illegal destruction and intimidation.
It’s not the first time that top-ranking security officials have used words like terror to describe the price taggers. Israel’s security cabinet debated the term last year, and a former chief of the army central command used the term.
The broader fear is that a deadly attack on Palestinians could ignite a new intifada.
Just a few weeks ago, the army released statistics indicating a 33 percent rise in monthly price-tag incidents during January and February compared to the average for 2013. The conventional wisdom among Israeli commentators is that the vigilantism is being spearheaded by small, closed groups of youths, making it harder for the security forces to infiltrate and foil the plans.
“There’s years of efforts and hardly anyone was caught. You have to ask yourself why it’s not successful,” said Yedidia Stern, the vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute.
Closing the yeshiva is “a lesser infraction of human rights than putting someone in jail,” Stern said. “I hope the army will be able to prove it in court. Freedom of religion is obviously very important, but when it’s being used to incite young people to violence — and you can prove it — it can’t be above the law.”
However, Evri Tubi, a spokesman for Yitzhar, said the closure will only unite the residents there against the state. Residents of Yitzhar’s illegal outposts see mobile-home demolitions ordered by the military as disproportionate acts of revenge by authorities for acts of vandalism, such as puncturing the tires of army command cars.
This isn’t the first time the government has taken punitive actions against Yitzhar. Several years ago, Israel’s Education Ministry withdrew its funding of Ode Yosef Hai study programs, arguing that rabbis there were promoting violence against Palestinians.
In addition to allegedly promoting violence against non-Jews, rabbis at the yeshiva have portrayed Israel’s government as morally decrepit for not following halacha, Jewish law. The same message was repeated in the yeshiva’s response to the army seizure.
An Ode Yosef Hai rabbi accused authorities of committing a criminal act and likened Israel’s government to King Ahaz, “the worst of the Judean kings,” who shuttered the holy Temple. “[Ahaz] said you can’t study Torah. Is that what the state authorities want? That this will be the first step of closing yeshivas? Our answer should be: multiply and break out.”
On a short drive to an outpost where mobile homes were demolished this week, residents point out boulders and blacked debris from burned tires — signs of efforts by settlers to block the army demolitions.
Yonatan Malachi, an outpost resident with two brothers who saw their mobile homes destroyed by the army, described himself as part of the “moderate” camp who still supports the military. Yet he also portrayed the destruction of the mobile homes as a “political act” meant to punish Yitzhar and prove to the international community that the government supports peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
“All of the homes out here have demolition orders against them,” he said. “I think they came to destroy the newest buildings.”
A video uploaded to YouTube by the more extreme groups in Yitzhar shows hilltop youths dancing as speakers justified the assault as residents “not wanting to stay quiet” following the demolitions.
“These guys believe that Zionism as we know it has died and finished, and they believe that now it’s time for a state of Torah rules,” said Oren Rosenfeld, an Israeli film producer who has spent years documenting the price-tag activists.
Ironically, the Israeli left-wing human rights group Yesh Din condemned the army’s seizure of the yeshiva. Though a virulent critic of settler attacks on Palestinians, a Yesh Din statement said the closure was “undemocratic” and a public relations stunt.
Yesh Din spokeswoman Reut Mor argued that Israeli law enforcement officials have ample means of reining in the price taggers. She said that Yesh Din and other human rights groups have documented incidents in which Israeli soldiers have stood by as settlers attack Palestinians.
She said that 97 percent of police investigations based on complaints filed by Palestinians against settlers ended with no results. At root of the conflict, Mor said, is a battle for control of the land, a shared goal between the IDF and the most hardline settlers.
“The fact IDF doesn’t enforce the law encourages the law breakers,” she said. “This was a monster that was created and fed with their own hands, and now it went and bit the army.”