Israel's enemy within: A rising militancy from the Jewish settlements

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JERUSALEM — The terrorist walked up the quiet alleyway, police say, and went down nine steps and found himself hidden from view in the stone vestibule outside the famous Holocaust survivor’s apartment.

More than a half century ago the Nazis hadn’t been able to kill Ze’ev Sternhell, who would live to become Israel’s foremost expert on fascism and a long-time peace activist. But the terrorist who was now on his door step, whom police allege was a fellow Israeli from the militant settlement movement, was determined to succeed in just that. He attached the bomb, hidden inside a plant, to the doorknob and left.

Sternhell was inside the apartment in West Jerusalem. It was Sept. 25, 2008 and he and his wife had returned from a vacation in Paris the previous day. The hallway leading to the front door was still clogged up with their bags. It was late, a few minutes after midnight, and just like he does every night, Sternhell went to close the metal gate at the entrance of the vestibule that is meant to keep unwelcome guests from breaking and entering. The obstruction in his hallway forced Sternhell to turn sideways, the right side of his body facing outside, as he opened the door to the apartment.

There was a huge noise and something pushed him back. He saw the flash of an explosive. His right leg and thigh stung with pain and began to bleed. He was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. Doctors told him later that if he had not been sideways to the blast, his abdomen would likely have been pierced by the bomb’s shrapnel. He could have died.

Israeli settler Jack Teitel in police custody
Israeli settler Jack Teitel after being arrested in the West Bank settlement of Shvut Rahel.
(Israeli Police Handout)

Police who came to the scene found leaflets scattered nearby. The fliers offered a reward of $300,000 to anyone who killed a member of Peace Now, Israel’s best known peace movement. “The State of Israel has become our enemy,” the fliers said. Police officers immediately went to guard the home of Peace Now’s most-prominent figure, general secretary Yariv Oppenheimer.

I interviewed Sternhell in his home this January. The police had made no arrests back then, but Sternhell was convinced that fellow Jews had tried to kill him. “This,” said the 73-year-old, whose mother and sister were killed by the Nazis when he was 7 years old, “was an act of pure Jewish terror.”

He was right, according to Israeli prosecutors.

Last week an American-born Israeli settler named Jack Teitel was indicted in a Jerusalem courtroom on 14 counts, including the attempted murder of Sternhell and the murder of two Palestinians.

When he arrived in handcuffs at Jerusalem District Court on Nov. 11, the 37-year-old Teitel, who was born in Florida, said: “It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God. God is proud of what I have done. I have no regrets."

Teitel’s arrest and indictment have reminded Israelis of a long-held national fear: that beyond the conflict with the Palestinians there is another enemy, the enemy within that is the extreme wing of the settler movement, many of them originally Americans.

Flouting U.S. President Barack Obama’s request to halt settlement expansion, Israel this week announced it intended to build an additional 900 units in an area on the fringes of Jerusalem. The move “dismayed” Washington, as the White House spokesman put it, and it outraged the international community. For the settlement movement it was an important sign of support from the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But many Israelis worry that their government’s continuing construction of homes for Jews in the occupied West Bank may also embolden the militant Jewish settlers who are increasingly turning to violence against not just Palestinians, but fellow Israelis to fight for what they see as a Biblical right to land.

The attempted murder of Sternhell, who writes a newspaper column in which he regularly criticizes the Israeli settlement movement, caused an outcry in mainstream Israel. It was “a nationalist terror attack apparently perpetrated by Jews,” said Avi Dichter, then the country’s Public Security Minister. Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went further: “A bad wind of extremism, hate, evil, violence and contempt for state authorities is blowing through certain sectors of the Israeli public and threatening Israeli democracy … The security agencies have been ordered to deal with this case, investigate it and act with the utmost speed to bring to justice what appears to be another underground.”

Olmert was referring to the Jewish Underground, a group of radical, messianic settlers who, in the early 1980s, attacked Palestinians with car bombings and shootings. They also planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest and oldest sites. The group’s members were arrested in 1984.

It remains unclear if there is, as Olmert feared, an organized, coherent new Jewish underground. Teitel, prosecutors say, was working alone throughout an extraordinary spree of alleged violence, during which he has been accused of trying to poison the residents of a Palestinian village, smuggling a gun on board a flight from the U.S. to Israel, shooting dead a Palestinian taxi driver who had picked him up and shooting dead another Palestinian who was helping him with directions. Even though Teital seems to have been operating independently, both Israeli and Palestinian sources, from inside and outside the settler movement, agree that there is unquestionably a rise in radicalism within the community and a greater willingness to use violence against Palestinians or the Israeli Army than ever before.

After Israel won the Six-Day War in 1967 and took control of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — Palestinian areas that had been held by Egypt and Jordan, respectively — religious and right-wing Jews quickly began pushing for the establishment of communities on what they considered land promised them by God. At first the Israeli government refused to let them build on occupied territory, but as the years went by, homes and businesses started popping up. There are now more than a quarter of a million Jewish settlers living among almost 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, and another more than 200,000 living in settlements in East Jerusalem. The Israeli government has poured billions of dollars into building the settlements and now considers the communities important bargaining chips with the Palestinians and crucial territorial buffers between Israel and the Arab world. The Palestinians, and most countries in the world, say that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is illegal under international law.

The cause of the violence between extremist settlers and their own government has been, and promises to be, the forced removal of Jews from the settlements in the West Bank that the Israeli government considers an obstacle to a peace deal with the Palestinians. In August 2005, the government evacuated thousands of settlers from the Gaza Strip. Then, the settlers generally did not use violence against the soldiers who came to remove them, trying to persuade them with hugs and tears to refuse orders. It was a tactic that failed. Extremist settlers say they will never leave so easily again. Next time, they say, they will fight.

Often at the forefront of the radical wing of the contemporary settler movement are the children of American- and Israeli-born settlers who, unlike their pioneering parents, grew up in the occupied West Bank. These teenagers and 20-somethings feel viscerally attached to the land, and, in a huge shift from their parents’ generation, they are profoundly alienated from the secular Israeli state rather than umbilically attached to it.

“A lot of kids are becoming … no authority, just them and God out there on the hills,” said former Queens, New York, resident Yekutiel Ben Yaakov, 50, who has provided guard dogs for some of the young extremists who set up camp on the top of hills, in violation of Israeli law. “They don’t believe there’s any hope to correct the ills of Israel on a spiritual, on a political level, and they want to create something new, something different, something Jewish. They want to realize their right to self-determination.”

How far the young settlers of the West Bank are prepared to go to stay on what the rest of the world considers occupied land and a violation of international law is a question that is increasingly haunting a country with more than its fair share of enemies outside its borders to deal with, let alone an enemy within.

“The scope of the conflict will be much larger than it is today and than it was during the disengagement,” from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel’s internal intelligence service, told the Israeli cabinet in November during a discussion of future evacuations of settlements. “Our investigation found a very high willingness among this public to use violence — not just stones, but live weapons — in order to prevent or halt a diplomatic process.”

Read the rest of "Israel's enemy within":

Part 2: A community on the edge

Part 3: Palestinian militants gird for battle

Part 4: The "Hilltop Youth"

GlobalPost correspondent Matt McAllester has reported on Israel/Palestine since the late 1990s, when he was Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, and more recently as a contributing editor for Details magazine. The field reporting for this series was done over several weeks in the West Bank and Israel earlier this year.

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