Thirteen Cases of Vandalism, One Arrest: Who's Behind the Wave of West Bank Hate Crimes?

Security service, police flailing as settler vandals run wild: 'Either the Shin Bet doesn’t want to catch them, or someone there knows what he’s doing'

Majdi Mohammed/אי־פי

The Toyota that entered the settlement of Yitzhar in the Nablus area last week attracted no attention, at first. The woman sitting in front wore a headscarf and the man wore a kippa, and the car's bumper stickers displayed an affinity for the extreme right, such as one saying, "No Arabs, no terror attacks."

After driving a few hundred meters into the settlement, the car halted. Two police officers in civilian dress got out from the back, seized A., 15, who was walking around and drove off. A. was taken for questioning.

Undercover police officers disguised as settlers are a rare sight. The people of Yitzhar couldn’t recall an arrest like that. Settlers who saw a picture of the vehicle later said something was off about it: The car was very clean and the stickers seemed to have just been put on, although some had been out of print for years.

The whole thing was caught on video by a person from the website Hakol Hayehudi (The Jewish Voice), which is affiliated with the extreme right, and made a lot of waves, which may have been the purpose in the first place.

A. was known to security forces from an alleged assault on a police officer some months earlier. He had been taken to the police station for questioning over interfering with a police officer in his duties, and was let go that same day. But the next day the boy was arrested again at his parents' home in Jerusalem. Since then he has officially been in detention.

The boy’s lawyer, Nati Rom of the right-wing organization Honenu, said he only met with him on Sunday night after being blocked from seeing his client for days, though they had talked by phone on Saturday night. Rom said the boy had been put in a cell with a man who presented himself as a mental case and claimed to be guilty of sexual assault, in order to get the boy to confess to being behind "price-tag" attacks - vandalism of Palestinian property.

People familiar with A. claim he isn't involved in illegal activity. The police on the other hand think he himself committed one price-tag attack and think he is linked to other cases as well. During his detention, cars owned by Palestinians were spray-painted with his name, which weakens his claim of innocence in other cases.

According to open court records, A. is suspected of a hate crime in Jerusalem in February. The file also contains confidential material, and last week the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court extended the teen’s detention by six days. On Sunday his detention was extended by a day, based on the risk that he poses a danger because of  the ideological nature of his alleged offenses, say sources in the know.

A map of locations in the West Bank where hate crimes have occurred.

Detention that protracted for a single “price-tag” incident is exceptional. Even more so is the police decision not to let the boy meet with a lawyer throughout much of his detention.

“This case should concern every citizen in Israel, no matter their politics," says Rom. "A 15-year-old with no criminal record suspected of crimes against property, spraying graffiti and puncturing tires disappears into the police cellars, is hidden from his parents and his lawyer, and only after repeated requests to the court did the police think to issue an extremely unusual order, of dubious legality, preventing him from meeting his attorneys. In Israel 2018, the police are breaking the law,” Rom added.

Rash of attacks

A.’s arrest provides a look at how the Shin Bet and police are trying to overcome the recent wave of “price-tag” attacks engulfing the West Bank. Over the past two weeks it seems the security forces have simply lost control. Since the arson attempt on a mosque after Holocaust Remembrance Day, Palestinians have been waking up almost daily to “price-tag” incidents and reporting them. In some cases, such as the ones after the teen’s arrest, the name of the settler “victim” was even spray-painted on a Palestinian car. Right-wing activists spray-painted the word “regards,” and also vandalized property, mainly vehicles and olive trees.

The security forces seem to be having trouble pinpointing exactly what led to these incidents, which are happening at a rate not seen in years. They are occurring one after the other throughout the West Bank, but seem to be connected. The words used (the boy’s name and threats) are identical. Tires are always slashed. No one is ever apprehended. In some cases the perpetrators are seen on closed-circuit cameras, but their faces are masked and they can’t be identified.

The security forces surmise that one reason for the wave of attacks is that new activists, very young, are joining the extreme right-wing bastions in the West Bank. According to a Shin Bet source, some are as young as 14 or 15, and have not been previously involved in violence. “The common denominator is that they are not in school, they express disdain for the authorities and they carry out violent attacks that endanger the residents of the area,” a source said. In response to Haaretz’s question as to whether these teens are involved only in actions that have already been investigated, such as the distribution of fliers denigrating the Shomron Brigade commander, which led to the arrest of a few teens in the region on Independence Day, the source said these youths are involved in other incidents as well. He was referring to the most recent “price-tag” incidents, for which at least officially no one is in custody yet.

“There are two possibilities,” an extreme right-wing source very familiar with the actions of the “hilltop youth” told Haaretz. “Either the Shin Bet doesn’t want to catch them, or someone there knows what he’s doing.” Fifteen-year-olds, he said, are not capable of such actions throughout the West Bank every night without getting caught.

Majdi Mohammed/אי־פי

The authorities regard Yitzhar as the nexus of these actions. A number of people from the settlement who spoke with Haaretz denied that they have seen a new group in Yitzhar. They explained that the settlement has always been a magnet for young people, some of whom are delinquents, but there has been no change recently. “The fact is, in the last events, the critical mass was not from the area of Yitzhar. That speaks for itself,” a resident said.

According to people from Yitzhar, the major change that took place came last year, when the security forces evacuated the Baladim outpost, near Kokhav Hashahar, which was considered a hotbed of the extreme, violent right, among whose inhabitants were marginal youth who were not originally from the West Bank. After the evacuation, a resident of Yitzhar said, “A very senior army officer sat with us and said those guys will be coming to us. That was a year and a half ago. We asked them what we were supposed to do and he said: ‘Deal with it in educational ways.’”

A Yitzhar official said the community was dealing with five to 20 teens seeing social workers, and denied that anyone new had come and stressed that many of the “price-tag” incidents had not happened near Yitzhar. The official said the authorities had issued administrative orders barring some of the youths from Yitzhar, which caused “tension” among those who were left. But official figures from security agencies show that 16 such administrative orders were issued to “hilltop youth” this year, the same number as last year, which was relatively quiet.

Some settlers hold more conspiratorial theories. In June, a verdict is expected on a part of the case involving the 2015 firebombing of a home in Duma in which three members of the Dawabsheh family were killed. The verdict will determine whether the suspects’ confessions were obtained under torture, as their lawyers claim. And conspiracy theories are not limited to the rank and file. Habayit Hayehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich wrote on his Twitter account: “I have much more than a feeling that the many recent price-tag attacks are intended to slander the hilltop youth as part of the Shin Bet’s efforts to legitimize the torture that the accused in the Duma murders underwent.”