Yeshiva Where Suspects in Murder of Palestinian Woman Study Seen as 'Strange Bird'

Rehelim, home to Pri Haaretz school, is not thought to be extremist, but sources say settlers there turn a blind eye to the students – who come from elsewhere and are more hard-line

The Pri Haaretz yeshiva high school in the West Bank settlement of Rehelim, where five suspects in the murder of a Palestinian woman in October are enrolled, January 6, 2019.
Moti Milrod

The Pri Haaretz yeshiva high school in Rehelim, five of whose students are suspected in the car-stoning murder last October of a Palestinian woman, Aisha Mohammed Rabi, opened its doors just three years ago and isn’t considered a particularly extremist institution. It is not thought to be identified, for example, with the approach set out in provocative works like “The King’s Torah,” written by hard-right settler rabbis. But people familiar with the yeshiva describe it as “a strange bird.”

Although Rehelim, located in the northern West Bank, started off as an illegal outpost in the early 1990s, its residents are not considered radical. This is not Yitzhar or Nahliel, explained someone familiar with the place and the people who live there. “They’re all 'square,'” he said.

But the yeshiva students didn’t grow up in Rehelim; they come from elsewhere, both from the territories and locales within the Green Line. People familiar with the institution say its students have more extreme opinions than the locals. The involvement of David Dudkevitch, the rabbi of Yitzhar who is sometimes referred to as the head of Pri Haaretz, points to such an ideological difference.

“I give them [the students] rides all the time,” said one local resident. “They are just like in Nahliel and Yitzhar.”

In September 2016, the Walla website published a report describing settlers who damaged Palestinian olive trees, and it was claimed that the vandals were enrolled in this yeshiva, but apparently no investigation was launched. The item was written by Shabtay Bendet, one of the founders of Rehelim who now works for Peace Now. He says now that the settlement turns a blind eye to the conduct of the yeshiva students.

The Israeli settlement on Rehelim in the West Bank.

“For years, right-wing settler leaders have been teaching the younger generation in the settlements that it is permitted to break the law for the sake of vision and ideology. Law and basic human morality are not red lines in the struggle for the whole Land of Israel, and therefore they [the leaders] cannot shirk their responsibility for the fact that more and more of their students choose to take that same ideology to the extreme,” said Bendet. “It is shameful to see that no settler leader has gotten up to condemn this heinous murder.”

Rabi, 47, was killed when stones allegedly thrown by settler youths hit her car near a checkpoint south of Nablus.

The families of the youths, who are now in custody, confirmed that the five got to know each other at Pri Haaretz and are dedicated students – a sentiment echoed by A., the mother of one suspect, at a demonstration Saturday night against their arrests.

Right-wing Israelis demonstrate in Jerusalem against alleged violation of rights of five yeshiva students detained as suspects in the murder in October of a Palestinian woman named Aisha Mohammed Rabi, January 5, 2019.
Emil Salman

The father of one of the five said he was extremely surprised by the arrests: “He and his friends have nothing to do with things like this,” he said. “Our son is a normal boy who studies diligently – a lively, happy and good-hearted child who was in an organized framework and didn’t hang around in all kinds of groups.”

The father apparently meant that his son doesn’t hang out with so-called hilltop youth from the outposts around Yitzhar, to whom security forces attribute a recent spate of vandalism against Palestinians. “We are really worried about him," added the father. "A parent wants to protect his children and we are feeling quite helpless,” said the father. “It’s very hard to explain what happened to the younger children.”

The yeshiva high school, which accepts pupils beginning in the ninth grade, has an enrollment at present of only a few dozen – a large proportion of whom have been questioned in connection with Rabi’s killing. Sources in Rehelim and neighboring locales say the school's founder and guiding spirit, Yehuda Liebman, doesn’t even reside in the settlement.

Liebman, a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces reserves who originally comes from Yitzhar and now lives in the settlement of Migdalim, had asked Rehelim if he could start the yeshiva there. Sources said that the settlement, which was officially recognized in 2012, was interested in opening such an institution even before Liebman proposed it, so their interests were mutual.

When it opened, Pri Haaretz advertised itself as “a small Hasidic yeshiva in the spirit of the Land of Israel,” which promised dormitory accommodations, a full matriculation certificate, and hikes and outings, along with Torah study.

Liebman did not respond to Haaretz’s request for comment.