Investigators into Friday’s murder-by-arson of a Palestinian infant increasingly believe in the likelihood that the extreme rightist operatives responsible for the attack are affiliated with the same ideological group that has torched mosques, churches and Palestinian homes over the past year.
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The group's core consists of several dozen people whose operations are centered in West Bank outposts but wander all over the country, including within the Green Line.
Unlike in the past, the understanding is that these assailants are no longer attempting to deter the government and security forces from evacuating outposts and settlements. Nowadays they have more ambitious aims, like destabilizing the country and overthrowing the government to establish a new regime to be based on halakha, Jewish law. They plan to use violence in a systematic, continuous manner irrespective of police conduct in the territories, investigators said.
This ideological shift among this gang of violent young Jewish fanatics once referred to as “price tag” activists or “hilltop youth” was identified by the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Police late last year. The terrorists came to the conclusion that mosque fires were old hat, and that a broader approach was needed.
Some of these ideas were expressed in a document confiscated from Moshe Orbach, 24, of Bnei Brak, who was charged last week in the torching of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes on the Kinneret shore. He had written the document, titled “The Kingdom of Evil,” which lays the ideological foundation for escalating the attacks against religious sites and Arabs, and offers practical suggestions for how to avoid surveillance and questioning.
Similar ideas about the need for harsher measures against Arabs and battle against the state were expressed by another right-wing extremist, Meir Ettinger, on the Jewish Voice website. Ettinger, 23, a resident of the Givat Ronen outpost in the northern West Bank, is a grandson of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Earlier this year the Shin Bet sought to put Ettinger in administrative detention, but State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan denied the request. Eventually, he was forbidden to live in the West Bank and now resides in Safed.
The term “price tag” was first attached to West Bank settler acts of violence in 2008, but at the time they were mainly aimed at deterring any further outpost evacuations. The targets were generally cars and homes in Palestinian villages, with no clear intention to cause bodily harm. By 2013 these attackers were causing more extensive damage to mosques and churches, both in the West Bank and in Israel proper, while also making their first attempts to harm Arabs physically. (Organized terror against Palestinians by other West Bank settler groups, though, goes back to the 1970s.)
The number of attacks defined by the Shin Bet as Jewish terror actually dropped from 30 in 2011 to 17 in each of the next two years, and to only 10 in 2014, but the acts themselves were more serious. Moreover, as the Shin Bet and the police began to arrest suspects and charge them – in the arson at an Umm al-Fahm mosque, for example – the militants became more secretive and compartmentalized. They’ve also become familiar with the security services’ interrogation techniques.
Over the past year the most active terrorists were radical rightists who live in Ramallah-area outposts. Militants from Yitzhar, near Nablus and its surrounding area, particularly the married ones, began to keep a lower profile after some were arrested. It is estimated that the recent attacks are the work of a few dozen assailants in their early twenties, while minors are also involved. Most move regularly between the West Bank and Israel proper and change their place of residence often.
The ideological change that was identified last year provided a new framework for attacks against Palestinians and religious institutions. According to the agencies monitoring them, the operatives present an "anarchist, anti-Zionist" world view and justify violent attacks, including ones that cause casualties, as means toward destabilizing the state, undermining Israel's social institutions and democratic government, and advancing a revolution that would set up a new Israeli "kingdom" that would operate in accordance with Jewish law.
The drafters of this new Jewish insurgent ideology are not in regular contact with rabbis and do not feel the need for halakhic rulings to justify their actions. They see rabbis once perceived as extremist as having become too “establishment.” They stress the need for emotional resilience, both as they act and if they are subject to police and Shin Bet interrogations. They reject any attempt to impose on them any authority.
Another dangerous change is that they now justify the killing of Arabs during attacks on houses and religious institutions, and are willing to demonstrate “self-sacrifice,” including the acceptance of long prison terms, to promote their goals. Some have even been saving money in case they are imprisoned for a long period. When a Palestinian home was torched near Dura in the South Hebron Hills six months ago (the family managed to escape), a structure on the grounds of the Dormition Church in Jerusalem was burned, and the church along the Kinneret was set alight, it seems the arsonists knew that people were inside, unlike in most past arsons, which were committed at night when the buildings were empty.
In various documents and statements, these young settlers speak of creating chaos in the country by intensifying the friction over what they identify as the country’s vulnerabilities. While the Jewish terror organization that operated in the West Bank in the beginning of the previous decade (whose members were never put in prison) dealt with shooting attacks targeting Palestinian cars, the new Jewish terrorists are looking for targets that they describe as “explosive”: the Temple Mount, “eliminating idolatry” by torching mosques and churches, and “expelling the non-Jews” by systematically attacking them. The assailants also talk about inciting against government systems and imposing religious strictures in public spaces, particularly with regard to women’s modesty.
While the attacks are conducted under a general ideological framework, they are carried out by small, compartmentalized cells that don’t really need a chain of command. Each cell is headed by an older activist who surrounds himself with young people. The cells do not share their plans with one another. As far as can be ascertained, the resolute declarations by government officials about acting against Jewish terrorists is not yet deterring them.
The vast majority of these loosely affiliated groups are known to the Shin Bet and the police, which have considerable information about them. The main difficulty lies in translating this intelligence into evidence admissible in court. In most cases, the terrorists are instructed in advance how to remain silent under interrogation and how to avoid leaving evidence at the scene that could lead to their capture. (In an unlikely break in the Kinneret church case, a tossed glove that had traces of one of the defendants’ DNA led to their capture.)
During a series of consultations on Sunday between political and legal officials, Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen and other senior Shin Bet officials called for stronger measures against Jews suspected of committing terrorist attacks on Jews. The Shin Bet complained that the courts are too lenient, particularly in enforcement against those who violate restraining orders distancing them from the West Bank or restricting their movement. The Shin Bet supports the position of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has called for limited use of administrative detention against Jewish terrorists.