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Teenage Wasteland, Part 1: Inside Israel's Hilltop Youth
EXCLUSIVE: Investigative journalist Natan Odenheimer gets up close and personal with Israel’s hilltop youth movement – the settler activists that have the nation on edge
“IT’S A WAR.”
Reut Van Loehn – the 21-year-old media spokesperson for Nachala, an organization representing a subset of Jewish settlers in the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria – declares her battle cry. 
“Whoever builds first,” she explains to me, “wins over the land. We have already lost over two million square kilometers to the Palestinians.”
As we speak, five teenage settler activists assemble a cheap, prefabricated home – typical in a West Bank outpost – with an electric screwdriver. The structure is being built in the middle of Habima Square – a major cluster of cultural venues and cafes in the center of Tel Aviv; like the equivalent of Lincoln Center in Manhattan.
Van Loehn explains this performative event as an important preview of an ambitious, illegal operation planned by Nachala for the following week. On the ground. In the West Bank.
Nachala is a well-organized group of activists led by Daniella Weiss, a 77-year-old woman who has been involved in establishing multiple settlements for many years. The “hilltop youth,” a loose association of teenagers and young adults who are committed to settling all of the West Bank, affectionately refer to her as their “grandmother.” These young people – often accused of establishing illegal settlements and engaging in violence against Palestinian individuals and property – represent a complex challenge to authorities, and society, more broadly.
What unites them is their opposition to the idea of the liberal democratic Zionist state. Their calling, as they see it, is to undermine Israel and intimidate Palestinians. Some Israelis see them as brave pioneers persecuted by the authorities; others view them as fascists driven by messianic visions. For years, the hilltop youth were dismissed as a nuisance, a pesky growth and regrowth that can be weeded out. Mainstream religious Zionists leaders cast them aside, pretending they weren’t really there. Meanwhile, IDF and Shin Bet officers were officially ordered to treat them as a threat to national security, justifying harsh treatment in every sense of the word. However, on the ground, Israeli security forces often treat them gently, and turn a blind eye to settler violence.
However, twenty years on, the hilltop youth have developed into a sophisticated, fearless force, and they have significantly expanded their base of support.
How has a radical movement that was once ostracized become normalized? And are they, as many senior Shin Bet officials have claimed for years, a real threat to Israeli democracy?
AT THE NACHALA RALLY in Tel Aviv, Van Loehn elaborates on the rationale behind this particular operation. “The state is preventing the natural expansion of Jews,” she explains, “and our mission is to force the state to back new settlements. Therefore, next week we are building several new outposts in one day. It’s considered illegal by the government, and that’s a mistake we must fix.”
“There is a land grab campaign that is orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority in Area C,” Van Loan asserts. This refers to the area in the West Bank that is fully controlled by Israel, pursuant to the Oslo Agreements. Any new or expanded structure requires an Israeli permit. However, only 2% of permit applications submitted by Palestinians are approved. And there are no master plans for further developing existing towns or establishing new Palestinian villages in Area C.
In Habima Square in Tel Aviv, Daniella Weiss was also having a tough time getting a building permit. A policeman had ordered the young men to stop assembling the prefabricated home they’d brought along. No permit, no building. Not even for political theater.
Attempting to broker an immediate solution, Weiss spoke frantically to a municipal representative on her cell phone.
While she waited for a response, I approached her. “Why are you publicizing this outpost operation?” I asked her. “In the past you’ve gone about these kinds of things covertly.”
“First off, we are entering a new era in the history of the people of Israel,” she replied dramatically. “We are here to ask for public support.”
As we spoke, Weiss got a call. She glanced at the screen and said to me, “It’s a donor,” before answering. A few more calls and Weiss had finally secured the permits required to build the temporary structure. But the only Tel Avivians who seemed engaged were left-wing protesters with Palestinian flags, who had come to heckle her public theatre.
ON JULY 21ST, I drove down to the Gush Junction, a main intersection in the West Bank, and one of three meeting points of the Nachala operation. That day was particularly scorching, causing everything to slow down.
It was a regular day, with the sort of casual intermingling of life that is rarely reported by the international media. Arabs and Jews were filling up their vehicles. Local residents were shopping at the discount supermarket that caters to the Jewish population and where most employees are local Palestinians. Soldiers patrolled the dusty street, looking enviously at the people relaxing and eating hummus or drinking coffee. Nothing about the mundane vibe at the junction that morning indicated that 200 meters away, at a nearby unpaved parking lot, something was going down.
There were about 300 Nachala participants assembled in the lot, mostly middle and high school students sitting in groups with backpacks. Flitting around them were journalists and photographers; border patrol soldiers observed from a distance.
It was tense. Very tense. All of us – activists, reporters and security forces – waited for a cue to move, without knowing what it would be. While we waited, I realized we were the bait; a distraction for the security forces, media and other voyeurs.
The hardcore activists were organizing elsewhere, perhaps already laying the foundations for the new outposts.
Eliezer Sharbaf, a short, tanned man with glasses, energized the crowd with a passionate speech. “Our current operation is against the Palestinian takeover of land in the West Bank. Land that is in complete Israeli control. The land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel. Jenin is ours. Ramallah is ours,” he said to the applause of the schoolkids around him.
Jenin and Ramallah are large cities in Area A that are under full Palestinian Authority control. By saying that they are “ours,” Sharbaf is claiming that all West Bank land – regardless of the people living in it – rightfully belongs to Israel.
As Sharbaf carried on with his speech protesting that the government won’t build settlements, one of the activists whispered in my ear, “it’s happening. Tag along quickly.”
Immediately, we got into our cars and started driving. However, what started as a race turned into a crawl: the road was jammed with Palestinians returning from work in Israel and the settlements. I followed the activists for almost an hour to the hills across from Kiryat Arba, a drive that would usually take no more than 20 minutes.
About one hundred activists were scattered on the hilltops. Border police and IDF personnel had set up roadblocks to prevent reinforcements from joining the forward groups. I was allowed into the area only after I showed my press card.
On the hilltop where I ended up, young men and women were “settling” by building tents and hanging out on beach mats. Some activists were praying, others wiping the noses of their children, snacking, chatting. If it wasn’t for the dozens of soldiers surrounding us, the gathering had the air of a festive camping site.
BY 7 P.M. the sun was about to set and a chilly breeze replaced the scorching heat. Slowly and in a very low-key manner, the border police moved from one group to another, advising that there was an order declaring the area a closed military zone and that they were being asked to leave. The event, it seemed, was over.
After sunset, the 300 or so activists who had lasted this long returned to the Kiryat Arba gas station by foot on a narrow trail. Inside the convenience store, I struck up a conversation with an army officer who had served in the area for over three years. I asked him about the preparations for the settler activists’ operation. He explained: “It’s important to remember that we are all on the same side. It could have been my family there today. Yes – there are laws and we must enforce them, but it doesn’t mean we should treat them like Arabs. These are not my words; these are the commands we get.”
In the parking lot, some of the activists considered going to another hill that had not yet been evacuated. But the conversations quickly diverted to other issues. A young mother who brought both her children with her, carrying one in her arms, told me about her new business: she teaches Krav Maga to groups of women in the settlement of Kiryat Arba. A young man of 24 shared his contemplations about his career – he was currently painting houses in Jerusalem, but was looking for something more meaningful to do.
At around 11 p.m. I started driving back to Jerusalem. On my return I received an update from the activists: most of the outposts had been evacuated, but several were holding firm and not budging. The next day, I spoke with Ayelet Shlissel, also a Nachala spokesperson, who confirmed that the operation had ended and that no one had been arrested. “All the outposts were evacuated, but the people of Israel are waking up! This is just the beginning,” she declared.
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1) For purposes of brevity, the remainder of this article refers to the territory only as the West Bank, which is how the area is referred to most commonly internationally. However, it is important to note that many Israelis, and settlers in particular, refer to the area as Judea and Samaria, which they believe more accurately reflects the historical and biblical significance of the territory.