Nothing in Meir Ettinger’s childhood indicated that, by age 24, he would top the Shin Bet security service’s list of most dangerous right-wing extremists. Like most of the so-called hilltop youth’s violent hard-core, he comes from a family far removed from extremist ideology. Yet over time, he and his friends became more radicalized and have formed 'The Revolt,' a group that – according to the Shin Bet - seeks to overthrow the state by generating large-scale unrest.
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In the week since the deadly arson attack on the Dawabsheh family in Duma, the Shin Bet has elevated this group of a few dozen people to the level of a significant threat. And on Monday, Ettinger was arrested on suspicion of planning violent attacks on Palestinians.
The group is an outgrowth of the “price tag” movement, which began in 2008. Its goal was to deter house demolitions in settlements and outposts by “setting a price” in the form of retaliatory attacks. But unlike the price taggers, Ettinger’s group has abandoned the idea of proportionality.
Instead, it seeks to bring down the state, and its tactics are accordingly much more violent. The price taggers mainly targeted property – and in extreme cases threw stones – but murder was out of bounds. Ettinger’s group has no such qualms.
Two documents seized by the police – one outlining the principles of “The Revolt”; the other its modus operandi – offer a glimpse into its violent ideas. The documents were drafted in a series of nighttime meetings by the group’s carefully chosen members. All had proven both their willingness to sacrifice for the Land of Israel and their ability to remain silent under interrogation. Before being accepted, they were grilled to ascertain their ideological purity.
They come from all over Israel, and generally have no connection with the veteran religious settlements in the West Bank. Many are school dropouts trying to find themselves.
Like ordinary criminals, they start small: throwing stones or torching fields. They get arrested and released, and thereby learn the investigative techniques used by the police and Shin Bet. With time, they gain confidence and plan more violent crimes.
They spend much time analyzing the security services’ weaknesses, and how to exploit them. So, for instance, they learned to ask a friend to use their cell phone in one place while they were perpetrating attacks in another, thereby creating a fictitious alibi.
They also try to provoke the authorities. If they’re slapped with an injunction barring them from the West Bank or released from jail, they’ll post video clips of themselves smiling and mocking their investigators to show others that the law isn’t really so fearsome.
Settlement, which was once the hilltop youth’s top priority, is much lower on this group’s priority list. Indeed, they consider it a distraction. If once the main goal was establishing another outpost and violence was merely a means, now violence is an end in itself.
Group members move from place to place – the West Bank, Jerusalem (a fertile spot for attacking Christians), even communities like Yad Binyamin on the Coastal Plain – carrying all their belongings with them. They live on donations or temporary jobs in agriculture or construction. But the West Bank isn’t their main theater of operations – in part because many have received injunctions barring them from there.
Luckily for the Shin Bet, they tend to abandon the violent life at a young age. They enter at around 16, but by 20 or 21 have a wife and child, and need to make a living. At that point, they stop perpetrating violence themselves and instead provide training and support to the younger generation.
Ettinger would appear to be the exception: His marriage a year ago made no difference. And increasingly, this may prove true for others as well. Members of his group have sworn to achieve their goal, even at the price of years in jail. Some have even started saving money for this purpose.
Though Ettinger’s mother is the daughter of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane – who led the extreme right-wing Kach party – his father is from the heart of the religious-Zionist establishment, which believes wholeheartedly in the state, and he was raised accordingly. But he dropped out of school at a young age and began roaming the West Bank hilltops.
He was involved in efforts to set up outposts and infiltrate Arab cities that were once Jewish, like Nablus and Jericho. Sometimes, these efforts involved petty crime. But the group he was part of, led by Meir Bartler, adamantly opposed violence or even price tag vandalism.
In December 2011, Ettinger and four other right-wing activists were arrested on suspicion of gathering information about army movements, in order to help thwart outpost demolitions. They were put under house arrest, but Ettinger violated his twice and was jailed.
During his 18 months in prison, he changed radically. He spent all day studying Torah, and his views became steadily more extreme.
Upon his release in 2012, he started studying with the extremist Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh in the settlement of Yitzhar. At about the same time, Ginsburgh’s students created a movement to work, through legal means, to replace the State of Israel with a Jewish kingdom, and it attracted many former price taggers.
The kingdom idea attracted Ettinger, but he was disappointed by the movement’s willingness to inch slowly toward a far-distant goal. Consequently, he broke away last year and began planning his “revolt.” He listens to no rabbi, and certainly not his parents; it’s doubtful he listens to anyone.
Ettinger frequently published his ideas on the Hakol Hayehudi website. For obvious reasons, he never detailed his group’s modus operandi there. But he explained his goal – replacing the secular democratic state with a Jewish kingdom – and proclaimed that “they” are sustained only by money, while “we” have the support of the Jewish people.