Israel struggles to crack down on Jewish extremists

Updated 3:53 AM EDT, Tue September 8, 2015
03:24 - Source: CNN
Palestinians guard against extremist attacks

Story highlights

A toddler and his parents died in an arson attack on their home

"Price tag" attacks have followed setbacks for Jewish settlers in the West Bank

Israel should use anti-terror measures against Jewish extremists, a lawmaker argues

CNN —  

On an exposed hill outside of Qusra, a small Palestinian village in the West Bank, a dozen volunteers huddle around a fire, passing around hot coffee and tea.

Their homes are a short walk away, but the men will not leave this hill until dawn. From here, they can see their village and its surroundings. It is the best place to spot an attack. And the most recent attacks, carried out by suspected Jewish extremists, have come in the middle of the night.

Armed with flashlights and sticks, men in small teams patrol the roads and the outskirts of town, looking for people or vehicles they don’t recognize. If they spot something suspicious, they will alert the town through the mosque speakers.

“We coordinate together when we see suspicious people walking around or a suspicious car driving in the village, so we can wake up the people,” says Abdulhakim Wade, one of the men who volunteers as a lookout.

They have reason to worry. In late July, just a short drive away, suspected Jewish extremists firebombed a Palestinian home in Duma, killing an 18-month-old toddler. Both his parents later died from their injuries, and their 4-year-old son remains in critical condition at the hospital.

’Price tag’ attacks

It was part of a series of attacks on Palestinians and Christians, often in response to what Jewish extremists view as events that go against Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

They are called “price tag” attacks, because the attackers spray paint the words “price tag” or “revenge” in Hebrew at the site of the attack.

Just days before the firebombing, the Israeli government bulldozed an illegal building in the Jewish settlement of Bet El, not far from Duma.

Yaakov Perry, a lawmaker and the former head of the Israel Security Agency, says it is difficult for the country’s security establishment to stop “price tag” attacks.

He wants the government to treat “price tag” attacks as terrorism.

“Then the whole system – gathering the intelligence, interrogating them, spotting them, and the punishment – would be much more effective,” he argues.

While the Israeli government has not defined “price tag” attacks as terror, it did crack down on Jewish extremists, many of whom are from West Bank settlements, after the firebombing. In an extraordinary step, authorities arrested and held several Jewish extremists without charge, a move regularly used against Palestinians, but very rarely against Israelis.

And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the attack on Duma an “act of terrorism.”

The Revolt

One of those detainees is Meir Ettinger, the grandson of Meir Kahane, a Brooklyn rabbi who moved to Israel and founded the ultra-right-wing Kach party.

The party was banned as a terrorist organization after one of its followers, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 150 more in Hebron in 1994.

Ettinger, 23, wrote a manifesto called “The Revolt,” in which he called for overthrowing the Israeli government and replacing it with Jewish law, called halakhah.

“The state of Israel has many weak points, topics which you walk on the edge of a tight rope in order not to cause a disturbance. What we will do is simply ignite all those barrels of explosives, all the questions and the contradictions between Judaism and democracy, between Judaism and secularism, and not be afraid of the results,” wrote Ettinger.

Israel’s Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, signed an order holding Ettinger on administrative detention, without charge or trial, for six months.

’If he is a terrorist, indict him’

But bringing Ettinger and other Jewish extremists to trial has not been easy.

“The system has no evidence that Meir Ettinger preached to use violence for the revolt,” says Itzhak Bam, an attorney representing one of the men detained with Ettinger. “And therefore, no law prohibits Meir Ettinger’s activities.”

Bam often works for Honenu, an Israeli organization that has provided legal aid to those accused of Jewish extremist attacks. Bam is currently representing Mordechai Meyer, an extremist held on administrative detention, like Ettinger.

“They are either unable or unwilling to prove all those arguments in the court. They say, ‘Well, he is a terrorist.’ OK, if he is a terrorist, indict him. They are unwilling or unable to indict. They don’t want to argue the case in the open court. They don’t want to allow him all the defenses Israeli citizens have in criminal procedures,” Bam charges.

’Kingdom of Evil’

In June, Jewish extremists torched the Benedictine Church of Multiplication in Northern Israel, near the site where the New Testament says Jesus walked on water.

The Israel Security Agency charged a number of extremists over the arson, including Moshe Orbach. The ISA says Orbach, 24, wrote a manual called “Kingdom of Evil” in which he explained how to create a firebomb and the difference between setting a home on fire and setting a mosque on fire. “Bring a lot of petrol,” he wrote.

But for authorities, stopping the attacks is a challenge. The extremists are loosely organized, according to Perry, and there may be no more than a few dozen of them. They work in small teams and are only vaguely connected, making it hard to gather intelligence about all of the extremists at once.

“You cannot define it as an organization,” Perry says, “and that’s one of the main difficulties of the Israeli defense system, the Israeli security system, to catch them.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu has vowed to catch the people responsible for these latest attacks, but his promises ring hollow in villages like Qusra, where the villages say another attack is more likely than another arrest.