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Hilltop Rebels Give Israel Pause

Times Staff Writers

They spend their days in primitive hilltop encampments deep in the big-sky territory of the far northern West Bank, sleeping rough among their sheep and goats, as fervent in their chanted prayers as in their belief that all of the biblical Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people forever.

The “hilltop youth” who battled police and soldiers with homemade weapons during Israel’s withdrawal this month from the Gaza Strip and a sliver of the West Bank decisively failed in their attempt to prevent the relinquishing of 25 Jewish settlements.

But after witnessing the zeal of these messianic-minded teenage boys and young men, many Israelis were left with the uneasy impression that they could prove a force to be reckoned with if the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seeks to cede any more territory to the Palestinians.

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“They are very small in number -- we are talking about hundreds, not thousands,” said Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonprofit research organization. “But from the way they act, it is clear they have really broken loose from everything. They don’t fear the law, and there’s not much law to fear in the no man’s land where they live.”

When these youths came down from their hilltops to join in the fray in Gaza and the small West Bank settlements that Israel had designated for evacuation, their appearance, replete with side locks and scraggly beards, knitted yarmulkes and dusty sandals, hip-hop-style T-shirts and baggy shorts, set them apart from the family-oriented settler crowd.

Religious bohemians of a sort, their beliefs reflect a melange of New Age and Hasidic influences, laced with a passionate mistrust of Israel’s institutions: the army, the courts, the Knesset, the prime minister.

“They’re ‘anti’ just about everything,” said Gideon Doron, a Tel Aviv University political scientist. “Anti-everything, that is, except for balagan” -- the Hebrew expression for chaos.

When it suits them, the youths heed the admonitions of select rabbis. But just as often, religious authorities are considered part of the larger establishment the youths are openly rebelling against.

In the West Bank settlement of Sanur, the last to be emptied, the hilltop youth appeared to be taking marching orders from a few hard-line rabbis, including Dov Lior from Kiryat Arba, a far-right enclave near the West Bank city of Hebron, and Shaul Halfon. Halfon urged them onward, telling them the Israeli troops they faced were not “real Jews” because they had failed to keep faith with the biblical covenant between God and the Israelites.

Other rabbis, even those who had led the opposition to the Gaza withdrawal, found themselves shoved aside, in some cases literally, by young protesters who went on to make a frenzied last stand Aug. 18 on the rooftop of the synagogue in the Gaza settlement of Kfar Darom.

From this redoubt, they hurled rocks, debris and caustic liquid at Israeli troops. Dozens were arrested, and some may face serious charges.

“Generally speaking, many of these ‘guests’ hold views much more extreme than ours,” said the spiritual mentor of the Neve Dekalim settlement in Gaza, Rabbi Yosef Elnekaveh, speaking hours before that face-off. “We can advise and guide them, but we can’t control them.”

At Sanur last week, the youths prowled the settlement in small bands, crafting long wooden poles to fend off a police charge. The youths also scattered spikes and cooking oil on roadways and access ramps. Before troops moved in, the demonstrators spent much of the day hypnotically chanting and dancing in the scorching heat, willing themselves into a state of near-euphoria.

Watching the spectacle, even some leaders of the opposition to the pullout were uneasy.

The authorities “think some of these youngsters are dangerous ... and in some ways they’re right,” said Aryeh Eldad, a lawmaker from the pro-settler National Union Party.

Senior Israeli commanders took the threat seriously, sending in massive numbers of troops for the evacuation. Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, in charge of troops in the West Bank, described the young protesters as being “prepared to wage an all-out struggle for the Promised Land.”

Many of the hilltop youths were born and raised in Jewish settlements. Their parents’ generation largely satisfied itself with populating comfortable, suburban-style communities that lie close to Israel proper. But the youths seek to stake their claim deep inside the West Bank, where they simultaneously aspire to a pastoral, back-to-the-land lifestyle and use violence and intimidation against Palestinian farmers and villagers.

“It’s like some kind of collective hallucination -- they dress like shepherds in the Bible, and they think they are creating a Judean state in which the Palestinians are the enemy tribes you have to fight forever,” Dromi said. “It not only doesn’t fit with the ideals of a modern state, it doesn’t even fit with the original ideals of the settlers themselves.”

In their hilltop encampments, the youths cook on campfires or small stoves, and make setting up even a primitive synagogue the first order of business in their rudimentary communities. Contact between unmarried young men and women is banned, so they tend to marry early, often by arrangement of their elders. Teenage couples already expecting a second or third child are not uncommon.

Their forts have an atmosphere likened by some Israeli officials to a summer camp -- with no rules of any kind.

After watching the hilltop youth during the pullout, observers were left divided as to the degree of actual threat they represent. When their resistance at Sanur collapsed within a few hours with little more than scuffles and curses, Israeli press commentary derided them as “clownish” and “lunatic losers.”

Less than two weeks earlier, however, the same hilltop milieu had been associated with a deadly rampage.

Eden Natan-Zada, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier who deserted his unit in order to protest the Gaza pullout, shot dead two young women and two men -- all Israeli Arabs -- on a bus in northern Israel in early August as it was passing through the Arab town of Shfaram. An angry mob then beat him to death.

Natan-Zada had been living off and on for several months in the remote West Bank settlement of Tapuah. There, he became friendly with a group of zealous young men, some of them still in their teens, who were living outdoors or in bare metal trailers dragged to the tops of adjacent hills.

One of these acquaintances, a 19-year-old who would allow only his first name, Avraham, to be used, called Natan-Zada “a soldier in God’s army.” Most in Natan-Zada’s newfound circle of friends were disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling Palestinians from the West Bank. Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990.

“I know that today, Rabbi Kahane would have told us, ‘Go, act,’ and everyone would have,” said Avraham, who lives in a hilltop encampment where he chants psalms, tends livestock and cooks over a campfire.

“And if the day comes when such a command is sounded ... to take God’s revenge on those who have harmed the Jewish people, I am certain that everyone here will stand up and act,” he said.

The Israeli military government in the West Bank has banned many of the hilltop youth from carrying rifles. So they fashion makeshift weapons, including butcher knives.

The Israeli army acknowledged Thursday that the military and other agencies had failed to share information clearly indicating that Natan-Zada, who used his army-issued M-16 in the attack, might be dangerous. It said steps would be taken to avoid similar miscommunication in the future.

Israeli authorities have long displayed a certain queasiness about using the full weight of their investigative and legal powers against Jewish citizens suspected of involvement in politically motivated violence.

“The bleak truth is that regarding the treatment of Jewish terror, the [Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency] has found it very difficult over the years to infiltrate the most extreme right-wing cells,” the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in an editorial last week.

“Even when they arrest extreme right-wingers, interrogators generally find it hard to crack them during interrogation, as they know very well how to keep silent.... It appears that the treatment of the danger inherent in Jewish terror has been far too lenient up until now,” the newspaper said.

Although it has been nearly a decade since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a young ultranationalist Jew, Yigal Amir, much of the turmoil in recent months recalls that era.

In the settlement fight, some youngsters had the air of lost boys. One skinny, wild-haired 14-year-old told of having kept vigil for six weeks in the Gaza settlements to try to prevent their uprooting. When asked of his parents’ thoughts on this, he shrugged.

The hilltop youth deliberately keep to the margins of Israeli society. But Sharon’s government will almost certainly face a series of confrontations with them if Israel keeps its promise, under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, to dismantle illegal settlement outposts. So far the government has done almost nothing to try to dislodge the young men and women responsible for many of these ramshackle offshoots of existing settlements.

Some critics, including former army general and national security advisor Uzi Dayan, laid the blame for the “hilltop” phenomenon at the doorstep of mainstream settler leaders. He said that in the months leading up to the pullout, it had suited their purposes to use the youths’ wildness to intimidate political opponents.

“So now,” Dayan said, “they shouldn’t be surprised that the fringe is running the show.”

Ellingwood reported from Sanur and King from Jerusalem. Special correspondent Ilan Mizrahi contributed to this report from Tapuah.


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