Israeli army troops outside Od Yosef Chai yeshiva
Israeli Border Police troops outside Od Yosef Chai yeshiva, Yitzhar, West Bank, April 11, 2014. Photo by Moti Milrod
Text size

To reach the yeshiva in the settlement Yitzhar, now turned into a Border Police base, one needs to go through four police checkpoints, which raises the question who is there to protect whom, and from what.

Late night on Thursday army forces entered the settlement and seized the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva building – for the next two months, according to a fresh edict. According to their instructions, they are not allowed to enter the school itself, only the offices and the courtyard. In the morning, when the area around the compound was still deserted, several soldiers were hard at work setting up fences and barbed wire. The company commander hoisted an Israeli flag together with the Border Police one, to mark the glorious conquest.

In the past, during Avi Mizrahi's term as commander of the Central Command, the army wanted to make use of an old demolition order issued in 1999 and destroy the yeshiva. Mizrahi viewed the site as the number one source of violence in the West Bank. These were not baseless musings: Many students and graduates of Yitzhar are involved in violence against the army and the Palestinians. One of the yeshiva's rabbis, Yossi Palai, published an article during the settlement construction freeze calling for sabotage of army equipment. The yeshiva attracts youth from across Israel, some from difficult backgrounds, looking for excitement. But if this yeshiva wasn't there, they would have found someplace else.

In 2011, Mizrahi and the army initiated a move to stop state funding for the yeshiva, and since 2012 it no longer receives government funds. The cash drought hindered the yeshiva, leading to a drop in student enrollment. The yeshiva head, Yitzhak Shapira, left for Jerusalem. Mizrahi asked then Defense Minister Ehud Barak to demolish the yeshiva, but was denied.

Thursday night's seizure was approved by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon after a meeting held Thursday noon. A high-ranking officer in the region said Ya'alon was hit with the sudden realization that severe and prolonged steps must be taken against Yitzhar, as symbolic gestures will not do. Politically speaking, this is a brave move for Ya'alon, who is dependent on the settler vote. The seizure – though the public is unanimous in deploring attacks against IDF soldiers – is perceived in the settlements as an illegitimate act. As they see it, this kind of treatment should only be reserved for Palestinian villages.

Finally, it must be understood that this is a gimmick. Gimmicks are great for the battle for minds, but they have no real effect on the ground. The army and police have no problem of access to Yitzhar. It takes only three minutes to get from the Samaria brigade headquarters to Yitzhar, and in the past, when they had to, soldiers arrived to the settlement promptly.

The problem is not reaching the place, but soldiers' conduct once they're there: Soldiers stand idly by, make no arrests or attempt to document the rioters. It appears the army prefers public performances over training soldiers to confront settlers. Reining in the violence will only be achieved by arresting the perpetrators and jailing them en masse. While the base in the yeshiva is being erected, the police are interrogating six suspects for their involvement in the attack of the reserve soldiers' outpost. One of them, Boaz Albert, is suspected of leading the attack. The new base will not do a thing to improve the police's ability to investigate crime in the region.

Neither did the establishing of a police unit dedicated to fighting nationalistic crime with a price tag of 80 million shekels, which is slowly bringing results, help wean the police from pointless actions intended merely for show, ranging from collective punishment to ridiculous operations.

On Thursday, for example, detectives raided a metalworking shop in Yitzhar and confiscated a bucket of metal objects, which the police claimed were intended for the puncturing of security vehicle wheels. The shops proprietor was taken in for investigation and explained that the metal pieces were a byproduct of the shop's work. He was released.

Elsewhere in Yitzhar policemen claimed to have found a stolen vehicle, though it was later determined that the officers made a mistake when entering the license plate number. In addition a traffic inspector was placed at the community's gate, who checked the road-worthiness of all cars coming and going.

In the community itself there is a heated debate on the subject of the way the army should be treated. The municipality sent a letter to the residents highly critical of the latest incidents. The residents plan to hold a vote soon on a motion that would the community resistance managed in accordance with the dictates of the settlement's rabbi, who opposes all acts of violence.

The seizing of the yeshiva straightens the radical elements' claim that the settlement is being deliberately targeted and thus the community should respond with war.