The Monster Rebels against Its Master

The mob numbered about 200 young and angry people. Some had covered their faces. They gathered on a West Bank road near midnight and hurled stones at passing cars. Israeli troops, including the commander of the division in charge of the area and his deputy, rushed to the spot. One of the rioters opened the commander's jeep door and hurled a brick at him. Another shouted, "Nazi" at the deputy commander and hit him with a rock.

The rioters finally left. A few minutes later, several dozen of them—mostly teenagers—forced open the gate of a nearby Israeli army base. The sentries failed to stop them. At the parking lot outside the headquarters, they broke car windows and slashed tires. When a squad of soldiers chased them from the base, they blocked the road leading to it.

Clashes between the Israeli army and locals in the West Bank aren't a new story. The apparent twist in these incidents, which took place on the night between this Monday and Tuesday, is that the rioters were Israelis—young, extreme rightists commonly known as "hilltop youth." The reason for their wrath, according to the flood of Israeli news reports of the eventful night, was rumors that the police and army were about to carry out Israeli Supreme Court orders to evacuate a small settlement outpost, Ramat Gilad, built in violation of the laws in force in the West Bank.

From Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, Israeli officials responded as if the confrontations represented an unprecedented internal assault on the state, the rule of law, and Israel's internal cohesion. After an emergency meeting with cabinet ministers and top army and police commanders, Netanyahu declared, "We have a democracy in this country. … No one is allowed to break the law. No one is allowed to attack Israel Defense Forces soldiers." The head of the army's Central Command, responsible for the West Bank, said that "in 30 years in the service, I've never seen hatred like this from Jews toward our soldiers." In a press statement, Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared that "homegrown terror … will not be tolerated."

In short, Netanyahu, Barak, and colleagues were shocked, shocked to find that settlers were breaking the law and that the extreme right can attack the state. In fact, only the details—attacking a division commander and his deputy, breaking into a base—are new. Otherwise, there is plenty of precedent for the extreme right's behavior. In a wider historical view, settler radicalism has been fostered by Israeli government officials and bodies since the occupation of the West Bank began in 1967. The state is under attack by its own creation.

The most visible part of state complicity has been tolerance of lawbreaking by radical settlers and their supporters. The problem was described in detail as far back as 1982, in a sharply worded, despairing report by then-Deputy Attorney General Yehudit Karp. Karp tracked the police response to settler violence over a year. She found a pattern of failed investigations and of the Israeli military government ordering the police to drop cases or free suspects. The report hints at an underlying contradiction: The police and army were responsible for public order in territory under military occupation but also saw themselves as specifically responsible for Israelis who were not only living among Palestinians but doing so as a matter of state policy. They were on the settlers' side.

Even when Jews were tried for attacks against Palestinians, the justice system ultimately went easy on perpetrators who were too readily perceived as misguided patriots. The classic case was that of the Jewish underground, most of whose members were settlers. The 28 members were arrested in 1984 and charged with several terror attacks and with plotting to blow up the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Three were convicted of murder—and after repeated commutations, went free after less than seven years in prison.

Other forms of lawbreaking, less visible but more pervasive, have gone unpunished as well. In 2005, attorney Talia Sasson published her government-commissioned report on what are known as the outposts—about 100 small settlements established since the 1990s. All of the outposts, Sasson wrote, violated the Israeli legal requirement of cabinet approval to build a new settlement. Many—including Ramat Gilad—are built in whole or in part on privately owned Palestinian land. Suits by Palestinian landowners and Israeli human-rights groups have resulted in Supreme Court rulings against a number of outposts—including the decision requiring demolition of Ramat Gilad by the end of this month. The government has consistently sought to delay and evade implementation of those orders.

The Sasson Report, however, pointed to deeper state complicity: Government officials aided and abetted the building of outposts on a massive scale. The Housing Ministry, for instance, admitted to Sasson that it had spent $16 million between 2000 and 2004, but she believed the actual sum was much higher. The outposts are a lesson for settlers, written in mobile homes, access roads, and power lines, that state agencies regarded the cause of Jewish settlement in the West Bank as outweighing the law.

But that, too, is a very old story: In 1967, then-Labor Minister Yigal Allon fraudulently diverted funds intended for job programs to the first Israeli settlement in occupied territory, a kibbutz in the Golan Heights. The pattern of the government breaking its own laws has continued ever since, undercutting its own legitimacy, in order to support settlement.

There are also many overt, legally approved forms of state support for Israelis settling in occupied territory. One is Israeli government funding for educational institutions, especially religious ones, in settlements, and salary incentives for teachers who live in settlements, including those who teach in schools inside Israel. Among settlers, 22 percent of all people with jobs work in education, nearly twice the percentage in the general Israeli population. Through schools, the government provides jobs to settlers—and gives them the opportunity to teach a worldview in which Israeli control of the West Bank is a cardinal value. The hard core of the outpost settlers—the radicalized hilltop youth—are products of two generations of such education.

"The monster has rebelled against its master," is a common Hebrew saying. It's based on the literary antecedent of the Frankenstein tale—a Jewish legend about a human-like creature, or golem, that a rabbi in 17th century Prague made from clay. Eventually, the rabbi lost control of his creation. A name for God written on the golem's forehead gave it life; to overcome his creation and make it inanimate, the rabbi had to erase the name.

The settlement project is Israel's golem. It's animated by making Israeli rule of the West Bank into something sacred, in religious or nationalist terms. It was created by the state and is rebelling against its master.

Arresting and prosecuting violent settlers is important in itself but won't end the danger. Is Netanyahu's government willing to remove the sanctity from continued control of the West Bank?

On Tuesday, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar of Netanyahu's Likud Party visited the West Bank and announced that he was adding Tel Shilo—an archaeological site associated with the ancient Jewish history—to his ministry's list of places that schoolchildren should visit on class trips. There's an Israeli settlement next to the site. Sa'ar stressed that Jews would always live there. For now, at least, the golem is alive and well.

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