Tel Aviv — For years, Jewish vigilantism has been dismissed in the Israeli mainstream as the work of a tiny and closed group of youths from the settlement outposts in the West Bank.
But the fallout from the killing of three Palestinians from the West Bank village of Duma has recast the so-called “price tag” campaign of violence as a threat to the stability of Israel’s very government. And it has put Israel’s ascendant pro-settler national religious community on the defensive.
After a weeks-long interrogation of suspects in the case, which kicked up accusations that the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, is using torture tactics, a wedding video showing Jewish radicals singing revenge songs celebrating the death of 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe sent shockwaves through Israel. The phenomenon of vigilantism, many are now coming to believe, is perhaps much more widespread than first thought.
The crisis has created one of the biggest challenges for religious Zionists since the shock of Israel’s evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005. At a time when many religious Zionists have risen to the top of Israel’s legal and security establishment, the incarceration of the Duma suspects is forcing many to choose whether to side with those who portray Shin Bet as hostile or to back up the organization and the government.
“This is a moment of truth for religious Zionism,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli-American author and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “The question is whether religious Zionists come to terms with the meaning of statehood. A Jewish state is not the same as a Jewish community. A state is governed by objective laws and the need to protect itself, while a community is governed primarily by mutual solidarity.”
At the same time, scenes of a catering hall full of gun-toting wedding guests and reports that the main suspects in the case are the children of leading figures in the settlement movement are raising questions about whether the vigilantism is coming from the margins of the pro-settlement or actually an offshoot of the mainstream.
“Much of the blame belongs to the rabbis of the hard right,” Halevi continued. “There is a continuity here that begins with mainstream right-wing rabbis like Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, whose racist anti-Arab comments have gone largely unchallenged within his own camp, all the way to the far-right rabbis who advocate violence against Arabs and who are the spiritual fathers of the hilltop youths. This continuity presents a far deeper challenge to religious Zionism than dealing with a few fringe fanatics.”
The Duma case, in which vigilantes killed three by torching the home of the Dawabshe family on July 31, has far-reaching implications for Israel externally and domestically. Both Palestinians and Israeli security experts say that Israeli authorities’ failure so far to file charges against anyone spurred frustration that contributed to the outbreak of the recent round of violence in the West Bank. Human rights groups argue that the killing in Duma is the result of years of failure to enforce the law on Jewish vigilantes in the West Bank.
Domestically, Israel’s Shin Bet has alleged that those responsible are extremist Israelis who seek to undermine the stability of Israel’s secular government by committing an atrocity against non-Jews that would spur international pressure and perhaps violence. Some of those arrested have U.S. citizenship.
In the wake of the publication of the wedding video, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called on right-wing politicians to do soul-searching about their alleged failure to speak out against other attacks on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank.
With the Shin Bet utilizing Israeli detention laws usually reserved for Palestinian terrorists — such as prolonged interrogations of suspects without the benefit of a lawyer — politicians from the pro-settler Jewish Home parliament faction have split on how to react.
Earlier in December, Jewish Home freshman lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich wrote an article saying that the Duma attacks could not be considered an act of terror because “terror is exclusively violence by an enemy as part of a war against us.” Last week, the heads of the local settlement councils in the West Bank penned a letter to the prime minister calling on him to investigate claims of torture and to find the real perpetrators.
Meanwhile, demonstrators have gathered outside of Israeli courthouses and cabinet ministers’ houses with signs like “Jews don’t torture Jews.” (Shin Bet denies the torture allegations.)
But Jewish Home leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett pushed back, by coming out in support of the Shin Bet and labeling the suspected killers as terrorists who aim to “dismantle the foundations of the state.” The remarks triggered dozens of accusations on Bennett’s Facebook page that he was letting down his constituency.
The minister’s backing for the Shin Bet was a courageous move and a challenge to national religious politicians and some rabbinic leaders who might try to argue — like Smotrich — that ideological crimes by Jews shouldn’t be handled in the same way as Palestinians, said Yedidyah Stern, a Bar-Ilan University law professor and the vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
The controversy has rippled through the national religious communities in the West Bank, where there is a prevailing sentiment that the arrestees are well meaning but misguided teenage dropouts who have left their families to find a home in settlement outposts. There is widespread sympathy for their families as they undergo interrogation. Publication of the wedding video convinced many leaders of the need to be more explicit in denouncing the Duma attacks and other acts of violence.
“That caused people to say, ‘We can’t be quiet any more,’” said Pinchas Wallerstein, a former leader of the Yesha Council of settlement communities and a resident of the settlement of Ofra.
David Ha’ivri, a resident of Kfar Tapuach and a spokesman for the Samaria Regional Council, said the national religious community’s reaction to the murder case has been mixed, as leaders are on defensive.
“The general community is waking up and distancing itself, and trying make sense of the sympathy they showed,” he said.
In an interview with Israel Radio, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, of the settlement of Elon Moreh, alleged that the Shin Bet division that tracks Jewish extremism sees anyone with side locks as a terrorist. Though he condemned the Duma attacks, he described the arrestees as confused kids who have turned against the state because they are upset at Palestinian violence. He cautioned against heavy-handed reaction. “You don’t fight ideology with jail.”
Stern, of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that most of the religious Zionist community would come out on the side of the government and the Shin Bet, despite the criticism. However, he said Duma is a test case for Israel’s legal system and the religious Zionist public that has now risen to leadership roles.
The case harkens back to the 1980s and Israel’s bust of a Jewish terrorist underground that planned and carried out attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank. Stern said that back then members of the underground came from the mainstream of the settler movement, and that Israel’s justice system was too lenient—reducing their jail sentences.
If Israel’s justice system convicts Jewish terrorists in the Duma murders, Stern suggested, it will have to impose life prison terms to set an example.
“Rule of law in Israel can be judged according to the way we treat this case. We cannot afford a double standard,” he said. “We should treat an ideological crime as [severely] any other crime, and even more so. The fact that someone committed a national crime doesn’t make it easier, but it is more dangerous. It is an attack on the system.”