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Teenage Wasteland, Part 2: 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 EASY TO SPEND ONE OR TWO DAYS ON THE HILLS,” Elisha Yered said last August, with contempt, upon hearing of my time spent with Nachala. “But it brings no real results.”
Yered stood amidst the ruins of what used to be his family’s home in the illegal outpost Ramat Migron, northeast of Jerusalem. “Last week,” he told me, “the army razed everything to the ground. We rebuilt, and the following night they bulldozed us again.”
It’s not the first time Israeli security forces have flattened his home. Yered, a pale, tall, twenty-two year old with long, groomed sidelocks, or payot, has been clashing with the authorities since he was sixteen. He believes that by inhabiting vacant lands, he and his fellow hilltop youth are fulfilling the promise God gave to Abraham in the Torah (Old Testament): “All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring.” He also believes that their actions will impede the creation of a Palestinian state.
Immediately after his home was first demolished on August 10, Yered began tweeting photos of the mess, to the applause of right-wing social media activists. Soon after, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to rebuild the outpost. This campaign was shared on social media platforms by Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich, among others. Smotrich even made a short video of himself calling on people to support the cause.
Yered, who is an unofficial spokesperson for the hilltop youth, also writes a column for a mainstream religious Zionist weekend newsletter called Olam Katan, or Small World. The weekend before his family’s home was destroyed, Olam Katan published an article by Yered describing how Palestinian activists “raid Jewish villages, attack residents and leave ruins behind them. All in broad daylight. The identity of these activists is known, and their faces caught on camera.”
That same week, Risala, a Hebrew-language social media news source operated by Palestinians that targets Jewish Israelis, published a video of settlers breaking into a barn some 15 miles south of Jerusalem, destroying and stealing agricultural equipment. In the Risala video, a Jewish settler tampers with the surveillance camera, but before he is able to shut it down, his face is captured clearly. Israeli left-wing activists took a screenshot and posted it on Twitter, revealing his identity.
It was Yered.
ISRAELI LEFT-WING TWITTER FIRED UP. Meretz MK Mossi Raz tweeted that he had spoken directly to the Minister of Public Security about the settlers who had raided the farm. “There is no reason that they won’t be arrested tomorrow,” he declared, adding that he would stay on top of the matter.
When I visited Ramat Migron a few days later, Yered and approximately twenty volunteers were rebuilding the outpost in the blazing midday sun.
“By Shabbat,” Yered told me, “the homes will be intact.” When I asked him about reports around his involvement in the plundering of the farm, he told me it was “nothing.”
“Even the security forces know it’s fake news.”
“BEING A HILLTOP YOUTH ISN’T ABOUT AGE,” said Oz Yehuda, a tanned, 19-year-old member of the Ramat Migron outpost. “It’s about mentality.” Yehuda, in some ways a stereotype, dropped out of yeshiva and moved to the hills about two years ago.
“The majority of the hilltop youth are dropouts,” says Dr. Idan Yaron, an Israeli anthropologist who spent the last decade doing field work and studying Israeli extreme right-wing groups. Although there are a handful of researchers who study the history and ideology of Israel’s radical right, Yaron is the only one who’s spent so much time in the field alongside the activists. His insights and first-hand experience are unmatched.
He defines this culture as “movements or individuals that subvert against liberal democracy, and support terror and violence.”
“There are about 100-200 core hilltop youth, often as young as 12 and 11 years old,” he estimates, “and a few thousand more who come and go.” Dr. Yaron’s assessment is more or less in accord with that of the security forces. To Dr. Yaron, the notion of a large cohort of hilltop youth and supporters is exaggerated by the media.
Yered is offended when I ask how many are dropouts and estranged from their parents and families, as is often said.
“Every once in a while, a lost soul arrives here,” he answers sharply. “They rarely survive a day of hard work. You must be driven by strong spiritual beliefs to be able to power through the difficult life here.”
Unlike Yered, who is married and lives with his wife and daughter, Yehuda shares a roof with other single young men. “I wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to herd the sheep,” he tells me. “I read the Bible in the pasture, and in the evening learn Torah together with the other guys living here.” When I asked him about enlisting in the IDF, he shrugged and admitted that the army turned him down, a rarity in Israel. “They said I’m not suitable.”
Yehuda didn’t elaborate.
“You are trying to become Bedouin,” I good-naturedly teased Yehuda and his friend – who also wore a keffiyeh – alluding to their lifestyle and looks. “The Bedouin learned everything from us!” Yehuda replied excitedly, “Abraham was a shepherd. We want to live like Abraham and inhabit each and every part of the Land of Israel.”
“THE OUTCRY FROM Daniella Weiss and others about the government not allowing new outposts is nonsense.”
Dan Stermer, a former hilltop youth who currently lives on Hill 777, an isolated outpost in Samaria, was emphatic that there is no interference with anyone setting up new illegal settlements.
“I work as a security guard with Palestinian workers. There are huge construction sites all over the West Bank,” he said. Stermer explained to me that from time to time the government would order that a Nachala outpost be dismantled. But if a group really wants to settle on an uninhabited hill, he said, it’s absolutely doable. They just have to coordinate it with the army and settle on a location that serves a ‘strategic purpose.’”
Why then, I asked Dr. Yaron, would guys like Yered insist on holding on to hills where they knew the army would force them out? “They believe in an ideology of rebellion against the state,” he explained matter-of-factly. “They don’t want to collaborate with the state.”
Stermer took me on a tour of 777. “Our presence here serves the security interests of the military. He pointed at several of the nearby Palestinian villages, and referred to the terrorists who had lived there by remembering the names of the people they had killed. “Almost everyone here knows at least one person slain by a Palestinian. Everyone has had rocks thrown at their car while driving to or from their homes,” he says.
“I was a problematic kid,” Stermer said, by way of explaining how he had ended up here atop this isolated hill. “I climbed on the school’s roof to avoid going to class. That’s how I ended up in the hills. That’s why we all ended up here.”
Between 2008-2010, Stermer was part of a small and closed group of hilltop youth. He recollected memories of fist fighting with Palestinians, and told me about “price tag” actions – acts of revenge against Palestinians – puncturing car wheels and breaking windows. “In 2010, I was arrested and detained for over 24 hours. They put me in a cell with a Palestinian, and I was accused of resisting arrest and trespassing.”
Looking back on his younger, intransigent self, he tells of his gradual epiphany towards greater tolerance.
“I’m not sure if it happened after the army but my perspective slowly transformed. Perhaps it was friendships with secular Arabs and Druze in the army that helped. I no longer believe that only Jews should be allowed to live here and that everyone else must be kicked out. Most of the guys I used to hang out with on the hills are today either in jail, became moderate or are no longer religious. Save Meir Ettinger,” he said, “who probably still thinks he is the Messiah.”
ETTINGER IS CONSIDERED A LEADER among the hilltop youth. He is named after his grandfather, the notorious Meir Kahane – an American-born Israeli who promoted Jewish supremacy and was banned from sitting in the Knesset by the Central Elections Committee in 1984 – a ruling that was overturned by the Supreme Court due to the committee not being authorized to ban his candidacy.
A year later the Knesset banned his entire movement by passing an amendment to Israel’s Basic Laws which banned political parties that incited racism – a ruling that was upheld this time by Israel’s Supreme Court. Five years later, in 1990, Kahane was murdered in New York City by a Palestinian terrorist.
The grandson has been arrested several times by Israeli security forces, most famously for his alleged involvement in the arson and murder of a Palestinian family in the village of Duma in 2015.
That same year, Israeli media broke a story that Ettinger spearheaded a group named “The Rebellion'' which had plotted a coup d'etat to replace Israeli democracy with a Jewish kingdom modeled on biblical times. Ettinger, it is believed, penned a two-part manifesto a decade ago titled Towards the Rebellion. His screed calls for attacks on Palestinians and other non-Jews in order to create mayhem that would eventually lead to a “new Jewish order,” purged of non-Jews and ruled by Jewish law.
While Ettinger’s manifesto revolved around big picture conceptual ideas, later that same year his friend Moshe Orbach was arrested for having written and published Malice Kingdom, a DIY “how-to” guide for building terrorist cells, including meticulous instructions for carrying out “price tag” actions without getting caught. Ettinger was arrested under an administrative order, but never convicted. Orbach was charged criminally and sentenced to six years in prison.
ACCORDING TO ISRAELI HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATIONS, in the past seven years there has been a surge in Jewish terror events against Palestinians, and recently also against Israeli left-wing activists. Most of these incidents occur in proximity to illegal outposts.
This disturbing trend is not lost on security officials in Israel. They are reluctant to speak out publicly but have shared with me their concern that Jewish terror is a significant threat to the stability of Israeli society.
The Shin Bet’s “Jewish Department” – which investigates Jewish terror – is the nemesis of the hilltop youth. A few years back, Stermer’s cousin was recruited by the Shin Bet intelligence bureau.
Stermer recalls: “There was a period where every time the gang wanted to carry out a ‘price tag act,’ the army knew exactly where to wait for them. It was clear someone was tipping them off.”
Eventually, his cousin was exposed and was frozen out by his friends at the settlement. He cried to his Shin Bet handler, threatening to take his own life, but was ignored. In the end, he made good on his threats and killed himself.
While the Shin Bet is responsible for countering Jewish terrorism, it’s unclear whether the hilltop youth are organized around any central leadership that can be held accountable. As with many social movements, it seems to have multiple “leaders” that attract mini personality cult devotees.
In a recent Twitter thread, several self-identifying hilltop youth, including Meir Ettinger, reiterated that while they might ask a rabbi for guidance on religious law, they “follow” no one. A Twitter user named Yakov Sela added: “Let me tell you what my way of thinking was when I was a hilltop youth. Rabbis are mostly shit. We know better. We can respect rabbis who aren’t against us, as long as they don’t get in our way.”
This once ragtag band of zealous hoodlums seems to intimidate broader swaths of society today than it may have 10 or 20 years ago.
While in the past Religious Zionist rabbis and leaders tried to distance themselves from this cohort, today they are sometimes reluctant to condemn “price tag” attacks. For instance, on October 12th, 2018, Aiash al-Rabi was riding with her family in the car, returning home from a wedding, when a rock hit her in the face and killed her.
A day later, settler activists from Yizhar drove to the Rechelim settlement on Shabbat. Their “life and death mission” (the only justification for breaching the sabbath – by driving, in this instance) was to prepare students from Pri Ha'aretz Yeshiva on how to cope when one is being investigated by the Shin Bet. Several yeshiva students from Rechelim were soon arrested by the Israeli security services and became suspects in a murder investigation.
According to Israeli police, the DNA of one of the suspects – a minor – was found on the stone used as a weapon that led to the killing of al-Rabi. This child was indicted as a juvenile with a charge of manslaughter. Less than a week later, Rabbi Haim Drukman – one of the most prominent rabbis of religious Zionism, head of Or Etzion yeshiva, former Minister of Religious Services and an Israel Prize laureate – published a letter with other rabbis calling for the immediate release of the minor suspect, saying he was innocent.
Five months later, the suspect – who is currently on trial – was released and remains under house arrest.
I asked Dr. Yaron if he sees any changes in the way hilltop youth operate and think. “They are much less ideological than before,” he said, “and carry out more ‘price tag’ attacks. I see a proliferation in violence. But I think that another significant thing is that today, the third generation of settlers dress and grow their hair like hilltop youth, and identify as hilltop youth, even when they don’t live in the hills.”
In other words, there is a higher tolerance for violence among those identifying as or with hilltop youth. And the group’s supporters seem to have grown in number and are now self-identifying with clothing and how they wear their hair. They’ve become more confident and established.
DESPITE THE ESCALATION IN SETTLER VIOLENCE, Israeli media coverage of hilltop youth is becoming more favorable than ever before. In the past seven years there have been several documentaries that portrayed the hilltop youth as a positive movement, including an almost hour-long film featuring Ettinger.
Walking around Ramat Migron, Yered told me that whereas in the past, journalists only wanted to find “the dirt below the sink… today most reporters come here with open-mindedness. The coverage is much less biased and we feel the support for us growing by the day.”
Yered’s intuition is spot on.
Israelis, indeed, have warmed up to the more radical elements among the settler activists like never before. Perhaps the most poignant example of this trend is Aviv Geffen. The closest thing to Israeli royalty – Geffen is the grandson of General Moshe Dayan and son of cultural icon Yehonatan Geffen. A singer-songwriter, Aviv Geffen made a name for himself as a rebel in the eighties and nineties by singing provocative rock songs that subvert the national Zionist narrative while wearing heavy face makeup, a la Marilyn Manson.
The younger Geffen refused to enlist in the IDF, and threatened to commit suicide should he be forced into uniform. In the mid-nineties, after Rabin’s assassination, he became a poster boy of the left and the two-state solution, and stood firmly against the settler activists who he said were “not part of our nation.” Recently, however, in a show in a West Bank settlement, Geffen apologized to settlers for his political position in years past, claiming that he only expressed these opinions in order to broaden his audience appeal. Like Geffen, other artists and filmmakers have normalized or embraced settler activists, most notably by participating in the first-ever Samaria Film Festival that hosted some of the most acclaimed Israeli filmmakers, such as Nir Bergman.
Israeli left-wing activists and many intelligence and security officials have been decrying the violence and anti-democratic tendencies of the hilltop youth for years now. What used to be shocking in years past has become a normal part of the news cycle.
YERED WASN’T ABLE TO REBUILD HIS HOME before Shabbat as planned. Three days after our last conversation on August 16th, he was arrested for vandalizing and stealing from a Palestinian farm in the West Bank – the incident he dismissed as “fake news.”
A week later, as I read about his release, I recalled that during our interview Yered asked me: “Those Shin Bet officers say we are a threat to national security. Look around, do I look like a threat to national security?”
Hilltop youth aren’t a direct or immediate threat to the State of Israel. The “Rebellion” strategy sounds as ludicrous today as it did a decade ago. However, the normalization of hilltop youth – either by the settler activism summer camp offered by the Nachala Movement, or by turning a blind eye to ‘price tag’ attacks against Palestinians – is a creeping threat to Israel’s liberal democracy, and as long as the occupation continues, it will only become more venomous.
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