Shock and Law: How Hate Crimes Go Unpunished

With hate crime attacks on the rise, Israel is not displaying a united front or ensuring effective investigation.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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The entrance to the Yitzhar yeshiva.Credit: Moti Milrod
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Shomron Regional Council head Gershon Mesika sounded positively shocked on Wednesday during an interview with Israel Radio. What Eliraz Fein, a young woman from the settlement of Yitzhar, wrote online in favor of perpetrating violence against Israeli soldiers does not, he said, reflect the position of the other members of that West Bank community. The majority of Yitzhar’s residents love the Israel Defense Forces and serve as combat soldiers and officers.

In fact, Mesika added, all the recent acts of violence in Yitzhar against soldiers were carried out by outsiders − youngsters from other parts of the country who ended up at the community after dropping out of school. They flock to Yitzhar the way other young people in distress find their way to Hatulim (Cats) Square in Jerusalem.

Fein’s opinions, Mesika declared, are completely foreign to the northern West Bank landscape. After all, just the day before, 10,000 settlers celebrated Independence Day with IDF soldiers at the base of the territorial brigade near Hawara, south of Nablus.

The interviewer shared Mesika’s astonishment. Fein did indeed write some very sharp comments on an internal Yitzhar Internet forum: “I am in favor of throwing stones (at Jews, of course; there is no question about Arabs) in some cases, even if the rock causes the death of a soldier!!!” she wrote.

Like the regional council head, the radio interviewer wondered how it was that, although the information about what Fein wrote was conveyed to the police almost a month ago, she was detained only on Tuesday. Some sort of dark governmental conspiracy is at work here, the two intimated. If there’s one thing the settlers have in common with their Palestinian neighbors, it’s a propensity for conspiracy theories.

One important bit of information was somehow left out of the interview, namely, that it was the settlers’ leadership who informed on Fein to the authorities. Her remarks, which certainly deserve to be roundly condemned, are not so different from many of the comments that get posted on the major Internet news sites. We also have to assume that the existence of the internal Internet forum in Yitzhar did not come as a surprise to the police or the Shin Bet security service.

But talk is cheap. Reporters who cover the territories and know Fein from her extreme right-wing activities say they doubt that she would throw a stone at a Palestinian, much less a soldier. It also sounds as if the judge who heard the suspicions against her was less impressed than the police and the media: He placed her under house arrest for a week, under restrictive conditions.

Beyond Mesika’s apparently genuine shock at the comments of the 22-year-old settler, it appears that Fein was “sacrificed” because distancing her from does not endanger the settlement and is even convenient for it. But the problems in Yitzhar are more serious than the behavior of a few off-the-wall young people.

Blurred boundaries

It’s convenient for Mesika and others to portray the settlement − considered the most extreme in the West Bank − as being in the grip of a struggle between a sane, law-abiding majority and a radical minority that is giving the community a bad name. In practice, the boundaries between the state-oriented camp (which constitutes the absolute majority in most of the other settlements) and the extremists have become quite blurred in recent years.

Many of those who choose to go on living in Yitzhar, where violence against soldiers and Palestinians has been going on for more than a decade, are compelled to make compromises about their beliefs.

About two months ago, the settlement’s secretariat held a discussion about whether violence against soldiers is permissible. It’s true that the majority decided that it is wrong, but the very fact that an orderly debate even took place about the phenomenon reflects the frame of mind there. This is also attested to by the backing received by Boaz Albert, a right-wing activist from Yitzhar who in recent years has been in and out of jail, after ignoring orders from the IDF and the Shin Bet to stay away from the settlement.

Albert makes serious allegations against the authorities for persecuting him, particularly during an incident last August in which he was assaulted by policemen and tasered. However, security authorities are in possession of apparently solid information showing incitement by Albert regarding committing hate crimes against Palestinians. That did not stop the local leadership in Yitzhar, or public figures, including Mesika and MKs Orit Strock (Habayit Hayehudi) and Moshe Feiglin (Likud), from participating in a reception in Albert’s honor and praising his activity.

Disturbing case

Still more disturbing is the case of Lt. Col. (res.) Yehuda Liebman, a resident of Yitzhar who also commands the territorial defense battalion in the area. In early April, after a group of young residents destroyed a tent camp of reservist soldiers, in protest against the demolition of houses in the settlement, Liebman was interviewed by the mass-circulation newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

During the incident itself, Liebman prevented some of the young men from setting fire to a tent. But in the interview he said he would not reveal the identity of those involved because he didn’t think that was the right thing to do. He also declared that the soldiers who took part in Israel’s so-called “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip, in 2005 − the “expulsion,” in his parlance − should have refused the order.

This week, it was reported that GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon is considering the possibility of relieving Liebman of his post in the wake of his remarks. More than a month has elapsed since the interview, but the IDF is still considering its response.

Meanwhile, the Shin Bet continues to identify Yitzhar as a center of right-wing trouble-making in general, and of hate crimes in particular. The ideological background to these acts, which the settlers subsume in the “price tag” category of acts of retribution, lies in statements made by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburg from Kfar Chabad, near Lod. Many of the rabbi’s pupils study in the Yitzhar yeshiva, whose building was seized last month by the Border Police on Alon’s order.

As described by Tomer Persico in an article in Haaretz (Hebrew edition) in February, Ginzburg developed the idea that attacking Palestinians – whether in the form of a Baruch Goldstein-type massacre or by torching property in a village – is the clearest embodiment of truly pure Jewish activity. Indeed, the “price tag” idea is probably virtually synonymous with Ginzburg. The major activists who perpetrate these hate crimes do so under the aegis of his doctrine, even if Ginzburg himself is not personally knowledgeable about the details of the actions and does not receive reports about them from his spiritual acolytes.

The Shin Bet estimates that about 100 people are actively involved in extreme right-wing violence, notably the “price tag” acts. Another few hundred constitute the supportive camp that abets the attacks. In addition to Ginzburg, there are also a few more rabbis who preach similar activities, usually implicitly. The key activists are concentrated in Yitzhar, in the settler outposts in the hills of the Binyamin District (around Ramallah) and in the southern Hebron Hills area.

The escalation of violent activities in Yitzhar, which began when the state demolished illegal homes there on April 2 and April 8, and continued with the razing of the reservists’ tents and the seizure of the yeshiva by the Border Police, has led to a great increase in “price tag” assaults. No fewer than 16 such attacks were recorded between April 2 and May 5, as compared to 17 in the first three months of the year − an increase of almost 200 percent. There is no doubt that the confrontations in Yitzhar have added fuel to the fire among the extremists.

The Shin Bet draws two distinctions in its analysis of the data. First, it differentiates between pigu’im (“assaults,” which are liable to prove fatal, as in the torching of a mosque) and iru’im (“events,” involving vandalism to property, spray-painted graffiti and puncturing of the tires of Arab-owned vehicles). Second, the security service categorizes the incidents geographically – as occurring in the West Bank, Jerusalem and within the Green Line.

There have been two developments in this regard. In the first three months of the year, 14 “price tag” events and three assaults were recorded, but since the start of April alone, there have been 15 events and one assault (the torching of the mosque in Umm al-Fahm). The second development is that the preponderance of such activities has recently shifted to inside the Green Line: In 2013, there were 23 attacks in the West Bank and seven within the Green Line, whereas since the beginning of this year there have been four attacks in the West Bank and 19 in Israel proper.

Former Shin Bet chief Carmi Gillon recently claimed that the continued rampaging by the “price tag” hooligans is due to the lack of desire of the government and the Shin Bet to apprehend them. However, in addition to the egg on Gillon’s face in regard to Jewish terrorism − the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin took place on his watch and led to his resignation − it’s doubtful that he is well informed about the current disposition of the Shin Bet’s Jewish Affairs unit. The Shin Bet has rejected his criticism and maintained that the spread of hate crimes is not due to any lack of resources to combat the phenomenon or any difficulty in recruiting human resources (read: agents) to monitor the activity of the extreme right.

The real problem seems to be a lack of synchronization between the Shin Bet and the police, on the one hand, and the state prosecution and the courts on the other. In the face of the ease with which such crimes are committed, and the considerable backing perpetrators get explicitly or implicitly from senior right-wing figures and from the settler leadership – the state is not displaying a sufficiently united front or ensuring effective investigations, trials and punishment. Until that happens, the hooligans will go on rampaging.

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