There has been a sharp increase in the number of attacks by Jewish extremists against Palestinians in the West Bank this year, according to data from the Shin Bet security service.
Attacks on Palestinians or their property has rocketed, primarily in the Nablus area, with the number of such incidents already exceeding the total number for all of 2017.
In one incident earlier this month, a mosque was set ablaze in the village of Aqraba – the first incident of its type in nearly three years.
Since the beginning of 2018, there have been 13 alleged hate crimes (or "price tag" revenge attacks) against Palestinians, involving the spray-painting of graffiti and the puncturing of vehicle tires, and two incidents that were deemed attempted terror attacks – including the arson incident.
In the previous 12 months, there were eight suspected hate crime attacks and five terror attacks directed at Palestinians.
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Jewish terrorism against Palestinians reached its peak in the years 2014 and 2015: Three members of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank village of Duma, near Nablus, died after a firebomb was thrown at their home in July 2015. Two indictments were filed against young Israelis from the northern West Bank following the attack. And in a wave of arrests that followed, dozens of Jewish extremists were issued with restraining (or administrative) orders. Some were also detained under regular arrest warrants.
An investigation by the Shin Bet and Israel Police at the time unmasked those responsible for acts of arson against churches and mosques. It also led them to Meir Ettinger, whom the Shin Bet alleged was responsible for a plan to lead a Jewish “revolt.”
The grandson of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, Ettinger was one of the ideologues who developed ideas that were embraced by a group of young Israelis, mostly identified with the so-called Hilltop Youth in the northern West Bank. At the time, the Shin Bet alleged that Ettinger intended to set up a state to be run in accordance with Jewish religious law, through a deliberate effort to worsen relations between Jews and Palestinians, and by undermining the country’s stability.
The number of attempts to attack Palestinians and damage property fell substantially following that wave of arrests and after the indictments in the Duma case and the arson cases. Another contributory factor was Ettinger being removed from the scene as a result of the nearly two years he spent in administrative detention.
Since Ettinger’s release, there have been no reports of his involvement, or that of his close associates, in any acts of violence. It is possible the leadership of those committing such acts has shifted to younger activists.
Israeli security officials have said past experience shows that a series of incidents involving vandalism of property quickly deteriorates into more serious cases of arson at houses of worship, and even attempts on individuals’ lives.
Israeli army officials are concerned that a continuation of the attacks on Palestinians would stir up the situation on the ground during a period that is already sensitive, given the planned move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ 70th Nakba Day in mid-May.
Those suspected of committing the most recent acts are mainly extremists from Samaria, including some juveniles.
Last week, there was an incident in which stones were thrown at a group of Israeli soldiers that came to evict youngsters from the illegal outpost of Rosh Yosef, near the settlement of Itamar. The soldiers fired into the air to disperse the youngsters.
Following the incident, notices were posted accusing the group’s commander by name of “firing at Jews.” Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot issued statements condemning the notices. The Israel Police also took the exceptional step of briefly arresting four individuals who were suspected of posting the notices, even though it is difficult to see how printing and posting the notices could constitute a crime.
The very fact the incident at the outpost took place, along with the distribution of the notices, is evidence of the current atmosphere on such outposts toward Israeli authorities. It appears it is also being influenced by two terror attacks in recent months in which settlers were murdered by Palestinians. In one of them, Rabbi Raziel Shevach, a resident of the Havat Gilad outpost, was murdered in a drive-by shooting by a terror cell near the outpost. Several weeks later, Rabbi Itamar Ben Gal, a resident of Har Bracha, was stabbed to death in the northern West Bank.
As part of an effort to combat the renewed increase in violence by the Jewish extremists, the Shin Bet has recommended that the issuance of restraining orders and arrest warrants be resumed against the main suspects. Shin Bet officials have argued that the effectiveness of the orders has proven itself in the past in preventing acts of violence. It has also been argued that issuing the orders is done as a last resort, following verbal warnings to the suspects and members of their families.
A large percentage of those involved in such acts are juveniles, and judicial action against them is therefore taken in coordination with the educational system and social welfare authorities. A few of the recent attacks on Palestinian property have involved the spray-painting of graffiti critical of the restraining orders.
This year, 13 restraining orders have been issued along with 23 indictments in connection with violent acts by Jewish extremists.
Defense officials have gotten the impression that the recent string of incidents has again turned the settlement of Yitzhar, west of Nablus, into a refuge of sorts for violent extremists – some of whom have even hidden there despite having restraining orders to leave the area.
Many of the latest incidents originated with activists residing in Yitzhar. Among them was a violent attack on a shepherd and the slaughter of sheep from his flock. Stones were thrown at security forces who entered Yitzhar, with one policeman being injured when stones were thrown at him. An Arab bus driver who entered the settlement was assaulted and attacked with pepper spray, while olive trees belonging to residents of nearby Palestinian villages were destroyed.
The young extremists remain in the settlement without adult supervision, and some engage in reckless driving despite not possessing drivers’ licenses. Students from the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in Yitzhar have also allegedly been involved in some incidents. The president of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh – who currently lives in Kfar Habad, near Ben-Gurion Airport – has for many years been one of the most influential figures in far-right circles.
“The far-right activists’ violent settlement and the recent serious events are evidence of the high potential for violence,” an Israeli security source told Haaretz. “There is concern that this trend will deteriorate into harming human life. If the activity in Samaria is not reined in, there is no doubt the deterioration will come from Yitzhar.”