Analysis

Violent Jewish Settlers Won't Be Easily Deterred — Even With Increased Israeli Security Presence

A series of attacks at Yitzhar settlement prompted condemnations, but the phenomenon isn't new ■ Defense establishment recommends opening a police station there, a move that Netanyahu isn't likely to pass

An Israeli firefighting plane extinguishing a fire at a village near Yitzhar, where Palestinian farmers were reportedly attacked by settlers, October 16, 2019.
Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP

The series of violent incidents near the settlement of Yitzhar didn’t take defense officials by surprise. Right-wing extremists, many of whom live in the outposts near Yitzhar, are under close surveillance by the Shin Bet security service’s Jewish division and clash periodically with the Israel Police in the West Bank.

Not all Yitzhar residents support violence against soldiers and the police; far from it. But for years now, the settlers in Yitzhar have had a complicated relationship with the “hilltop youth” radicals living around them. The public condemnations by some of them of stone throwing or threats against soldiers and the Border Police are coming a bit late – after years of tacit acceptance of attacks on neighboring Palestinian villages.

An outpost near Yitzhar, Kumi Ori, is the focal point of much of the current violence. A few years ago, the focal point was the clutch of outposts near the settlement of Kochav Hashahar northeast of Ramallah. When the police and Shin Bet concentrated their efforts there after the arrests in the 2015 arson murder of members of the Dawabsheh family, the hard core of extremists moved to the Yitzhar area.

This year there have been nearly 150 violent incidents by Jews in the Samaria region in the northern West Bank, with Yitzhar and its environs topping the list. There were 29 “price tag” incidents in which Palestinian property was damaged and hateful slogans were painted, with 27 administrative orders issued against right-wing activists in the West Bank. Most of these were temporary restraining orders meant to keep the activists out of the West Bank; others required the activists to spend nights at home.

But it turns out that some of the orders aren’t being enforced. Some outpost residents have found refuge in Yitzhar. Because the police consider any entry of forces into the settlement a full-fledged military operation that requires a large deployment and SWAT teams, they rarely go there and so activists feel safe. One person against whom a restraining order was issued was even seen participating in a demonstration in support of the hilltop youth following the recent clashes with the army.

Law enforcement in the outposts is weak at best; accordingly, the hilltop youth’s confidence is high. It’s not just a matter of preventing violence; according to security sources, in the outposts it’s common for minors without licenses to drive cars that have been ordered off the roads for safety reasons – similar to the practice of their Palestinian neighbors. The police’s authority is not felt clearly enough in these areas.

The incidents of recent days have renewed attention on events in the outposts, and have been accompanied by a broad wave of condemnations, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who didn’t name the settlement or discuss the identity of the attackers), various politicians and army chief Aviv Kochavi. But violence in these outposts is nothing new, nor is the atmosphere that supports violent acts.

Last October, Aisha Rabi, a Palestinian woman from the village of Biddya, was killed by a stone thrown at her family’s car south of Nablus. The Shin Bet and the police arrested yeshiva students from the settlement of Rehelim and one of them was tried for manslaughter. During the investigation it emerged that right-wing activists from Yitzhar had desecrated Shabbat to travel to Rehelim to coach the suspects on how to behave during Shin Bet interrogations.

In 2014, after settlers vandalized an army position near Yitzhar, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stationed a Border Police company in the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva, known for its extremist views. Those officers remained there for 14 months, and the Shin Bet got the impression that the move was valuable; the rate of violent incidents dropped.

Now defense officials are likely to repeat a suggestion made but rejected in the past: to open a police substation in Yitzhar. The settlement presumably wouldn't like the idea, but defense officials are convinced that it would be both a deterrent and enable a quick response in the event of additional violence.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, approving such a move during this politically sensitive time as he aims to solidify his support on the right given the possibility of another election. The Civil Administration has a detailed list of dozens of illegal structures in the outposts in the Nablus area. The chance that Netanyahu will approve the demolition of any of them as a punishment and deterrent following the recent violence seems pretty small.