Only a few hundred meters separate the fence that surrounds the settlement of Kokhav Hashahar from a group of four temporary structures. As far as the settlers are concerned, these are friendly neighbors, the members of the small outpost of Maoz Esther. One of them was the home of Ahuvia Sandak, whose parents were among the founders.
Like other illegal outposts, Maoz Esther was built on private Palestinian land. Last month, according to the hottest rumor on the hill, it was scheduled to be evacuated by the Civil Administration on December 22 – not for the first time. It has been repeatedly evacuated and repopulated for over a decade.
But the Civil Administration bulldozers didn’t arrive, perhaps because Sandak, 16, was killed two days earlier during a police chase after hilltop youth allegedly stoned Palestinians near his outpost. Sandak’s death ignited a wave of demonstrations in the West Bank and Jerusalem, some of which turned into violent rioting against Palestinians and their property.
The atmosphere in Maoz Esther is relatively pastoral. A sheep pen and an adjacent temporary structure serve as a kind of living memorial to Sandak. “Ma’aleh Ahuvia” is the new name of the place, a memorial outpost built by several of Sandak’s friends, near the site of the accident. They plan on more. People around them are accustomed to the spread of these sponteanous outposts, and to the strongly felt presence of their residents.
“I feel that wherever I go they’ll come to evict me,” says Amad Abu Alya, a shepherd from the village of Almughair. He says outposts residents near Kokhav Hashahar routinely harass him to prevent him from grazing his sheep. In April, he said, a group of boys beat him and his sheep with clubs. Another time, soldiers fired pepper spray at his feet to chase him away from the grazing area. He’s convinced that settlers summoned them.
A sterile area
An improvised sign, surrounded by stones, welcomes visitors to Maoz Esther, followed by the declaration “On the way to Greater Israel” at the bottom. The area in the hills is relatively spacious. Quite a distance separates the structures, and for good reason. They strictly observe negia (touch), the prohibition against physical contact between men and women.
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One building houses six young women. A second has room for six young men. Another two buildings are for young married couples, usually in their late teens. “The place is sanctified,” according to Rabbi Meir Goldmintz, who advised the teenagers how to live with gender separation. “Not only is there no entry to the building of the opposite sex, but the entire hill is a sterile area: either for boys only or girls only.”
Separation is observed in all activities. Boys doing guard duty are warned against entering the “girls’ hill,” and a married resident delivers messages between them.
Efraim and Yerushalayim Gozlan came to Maoz Esther about 18 months ago. He is one of the four young men who were in the car with Sandak and were detained on suspicion of throwing stones at Palestinians (as well as crimes related to the circumstances of his death). Yerushalayim, 19, grew up in the settlement of Yitzhar and completed her studies at the ulpana, the girls’ high school, in the settlement of Ma’aleh Levona. The ulpana is known for its graduates joining outposts.
“When I first arrived at the hilltop, in the footsteps of a girlfriend from the ulpana, I was still pro-government and thought that the hilltop youth were strange,” she said. “But then I saw that these are people who are sincerely saying, ‘We want to build the country and we’ll go for it.’” She rejects the labeling of the hilltop youth as problematic.
“Most teens are on Facebook all day long. We do our matriculation exams alone and are preoccupied with principles,” she said. Her younger sister dropped out of the ulpana and joined her on the hilltop. Their mother says she initially had reservations about the move, but now she supports it.
Yerushalayim first lived in the girls’ residence, but after meeting and marrying Gozlan, the two became “permanent residents” and close friends of Sandak. “When I was at the funeral, I thought that if they were to ask me how I’m connected to him – I’ll say that I was his sister-in-law,” she said last week.
Sandak’s parents live further away in the settlement of Bat Ayin, about 55 kilometers south of the outpost. But they are connected to it in other ways, besides being the founders of nearby Kokhav Hashahar. After their son’s death they embarked on a crowdfunding campaign to build a synagogue and a vineyard in the outpost, as well as a house to which they will move. To date the campaign has raised over 370,000 shekels ($116,000). One of the donors is right wing leader Naftali Bennett.
‘What God wants’
The members of the outpost don’t talk much about violence, at least the kind that makes its way from the hilltops towards the nearby villages. The same goes for other outposts. But it doesn’t take much effort to encounter reports about attacking Palestinian neighbors.
Only two months ago, Ohad Hemo, Channel 12 News reporter, documented an attempt by residents of the outpost of Oz Tzion to prevent Palestinians from picking olives nearby. The clash included stone throwing. Other incidents, and there are numerous documented cases, include harassment of left-wing activists or security forces. In one instance, security forces were stoned after the area of the Kumi Ori outpost was declared a closed military zone.
“We’ve had innumerable run-ins with the hilltop youth, from curses and galloping in our direction on a horse up to physical violence,” said Guy Hirschfeld, an activist who accompanies Palestinian shepherds. He says the main logic behind the hilltop outposts is to seize an area by using it for grazing, and evicting the Palestinian shepherds from it. Filmed evidence supporting this statement goes back years. For example, masked men were documented in 2017 attacking activists from Taayush, the Israeli-Palestinian anti-occupation group, with stones and clubs, when they accompanied Palestinian shepherds near the Baladim outpost.
Someone very familiar with some of these stories is Elisha Yered, a former resident of Maoz Esther, and a prominent hilltop activist. He also serves as a kind of spokesman for the hilltop youth – who these days rarely speak to the media without the mediation of one of the spokespersons in the area.
Yered, 21, came to the outpost about three years ago, and one of the founders of its present incarnation. “The path of the hilltop youths is one of faith and a sense of mission to settle the land, because that’s what God wants,” says Yered, now married.
He also believes that “we must expel the goyim.” The goyim, meaning the Palestinians, can live in the country, he says, on condition that they respect Judaism, observe the seven Noahide laws and “keep their heads down.”
Although Yered is young, he says he has already lived in seven outposts, some of which have been evacuated. He says that when he lived in the Meginei Eretz (Protectors of the Land) outpost, Palestinians stole his phylacteries and planned to torch the place.
“When you’re in an inferior position you need a deterrence – the way the government demolishes terrorist homes, we on the hilltops are also forced to practice deterrence,” he says, justifying settler violence in certain cases. “Sometimes teenagers go and carry out a ‘price tag’ [revenge] attack against a hostile village nearby in order to show that if you destroy property or cause me physical harm, you won’t be able to sleep at night either,” he says.
Yered’s parents, Shai and Rina Yered, serve as a kind of family in residence on the hilltop where Elisha’s 15-year-old sister now lives. The parents, who hail from Petah Tikvah, moved to the settlement of Sa-Nur in northern Samaria after getting married. After it became one of the four settlements evacuated from the region as part of the 2005 disengagement, they settled in Shalhevet-Ya – an outpost that is actually a neighborhood of the settlement of Yitzhar, a few meters away from the Palestinian village of Asira al-Kabiliya.
“When we first came to live here, they would whistle at us from the village and threaten us,” said Shai. “Today, if Arabs get within 20 meters from the last house here, the army considers it an infiltration. Today, I go to sleep in peace.”
The father and son agree on their way of life, and both believe in home-schooling their children. On the hilltops, Elisha said, they read the Bible a lot (“to connect with the proper life in Israel”). They also read books by Rabbi Kook, by his disciple Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap and by Rabbi Meir Kahane.
And what about the violence that emerges from the hilltops? “If a boy of 16 throws a stone, that’s after he experienced aggression for years and sees the helplessness of the system, and that there’s no one to protect him,” replied Shai. “Anyone who’s on the hilltops is there to make the desert bloom. And like the early pioneers, they also evict the Bedouin if necessary.”
One of the most violent incidents in recent years was the murder of three members of the Dawabshe family in Duma. Amiram Ben Uliel – a former hilltop resident – was convicted of the crime last May, and sent to three life terms plus 17 years behind bars. The Duma murder significantly influenced West Bank activists, said Elisha Yered. “They swept the hilltops clean,” he recalled. “People would receive restraining orders after four months on a hilltop, so those who remained were mainly teenagers without a clear-cut ideology.”
The killing also tarnished the image of the hilltop youth. They felt they had to respond. However, rather than engaging in reconciliation activities with Palestinians, their response included meetings with youth coordinators in the settlements, information stands in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and even a Facebook page called “Get to know the hilltop youth.” They also hosted hilltop youth camps, where young people study Torah with rabbis like Rabbi Dov Lior and Rabbi Haim Smotrich, the father of MK Bezalel Smotrich, and learn construction.
Construction, not surprisingly, is a central part of the lives of the outposts’ permanent residents, mainly the young men. The girls of Maoz Esther work in the packing house in the outpost of Esh Kodesh, in the Shiloh settlement bloc. “The value of Jewish labor is important to them, for us to build the country in this area,” explained Yerushalayim Gozlan.
Besides the work, there are more standard studies. The Menifa program, which works with youths at risk, began helping some of the girls in the past year to complete their matriculation exams, paying to bring teachers there. Not everyone welcomes this initiative. Cooperation with welfare and education groups could reinforce the image of the hilltop youth as problematic, and as needing help to return to the correct path, they say.
This is not the first assistance program earmarked for the hilltop youth. The state allocated funds for a rehabilitation program that got underway in 2018, but it didn’t last long, due to a shortage of funds. One of the workers who participated in that initiative stressed the program’s goal was never to remove the youth from the hilltops. “There are people who are strengthened by being on the hilltop,” he said. “It’s not a program for being weaned from ideology.”
The program’s main objective was to concentrate on helping people to do their matriculation exams or alternatively to undergo professional training, and nothing more. “There will always be friction between the Arabs and the hilltops,” he said. “The question is whether they’re preoccupied mainly with the friction or whether it will be only a rare occurrence.”