Radical Jewish settlers threaten to fight Israeli army

A vandalized Muslim grave with a Jewish Star of David sits in a Hebron cemetery.
A vandalized Muslim grave with a Jewish Star of David sits in a Hebron cemetery. Dion Nissenbaum / MCT

HEBRON, West Bank — The Israeli government has arrested Jewish settler Itamar Ben Gvir more than 300 times by his own count.

He's been arrested for holding a public barbeque to celebrate the 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He's spent months under house arrest and scuffled with Israeli police, and he was temporarily barred from taking part in protests against Israel's decision to dismantle all its Gaza Strip settlements in 2005.

None of it, the 32-year-old father of two now says, has ensured that the Israeli government can't forcibly evict even one more Jewish settler from the West Bank.

Now, Israeli activists such as Ben Gvir are embracing an even more confrontational strategy called the "Price Tag." Its concept is straightforward: If the Israeli government tries to forcibly remove any settlers from the West Bank, settlers should hit back. Hard.

It might come in the form of a pipe bomb planted at the doorstep of a left-wing Israeli activist or vandalizing Muslim graveyards by spray painting Stars of David on the headstones. It might entail throwing stones at Israeli soldiers trying to dismantle illegal West Bank outposts or beating Palestinian farmers in their fields.

"Our new tactic is: "We're not suckers,' " said Ben Gvir, who's at the forefront of a violent new showdown in Hebron, a West Bank city that's a magnet for radical settlers and that's now the scene of the first real test for the "Price Tag" strategy.

Hundreds of young Jewish activists have converged on a disputed three-story stone building. Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the government to clear it of Jewish residents until judges can resolve a legal battle over who owns the property: An American-Jewish businessman who says he bought it legally or the Palestinian man who says Jewish families moved into his property illegally last year.

As soon as the court ruled two weeks ago, Israeli activists began converging on Hebron, where some began carrying out the "Price Tag" strategy.

Since then, some settlers have rampaged through nearby Palestinian villages. They've vandalized the adjacent Muslim graveyard by spray-painting Stars of David on the headstones and written, "Mohammed is a Pig" on the side of a nearby mosque.

The volatile settler resistance has generated alarm among Israel's leaders. Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's Shin Bet intelligence service, recently warned the nation's leaders that extremist settlers may be willing to use guns to fight the government.

Some Israelis took that as a warning that extremists might be plotting a political assassination like that of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was killed in 1995 by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed his signing an agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

On Wednesday, Israeli President Shimon Peres became the latest leader to denounce the settler attacks.

"Whoever throws a stone at a soldier, it is as if he has thrown a stone at the State of Israel," Peres said.

Concerns about settler violence have been growing since September, when a pipe bomb exploded outside the home of Zeev Sternhell, an Israeli history professor and a vocal critic of unregulated West Bank settlement expansion. At the scene, police found flyers announcing a quarter million dollar reward for anyone who killed a member of Israel's left-leaning Peace Now movement.

"The State of Israel has become our enemy," the flyer said.

The increasingly militant approach is also generating reservations among some settlement leaders, who worry that it could backfire and hurt their attempts to win more support among the Israeli public.

"It doesn't help us, and many times it hurts us," said Benny Katsover, a veteran West Bank settlement leader who's heading a parallel campaign to set up small cells of settlers to block intersections and disrupt attempts to remove settlements.

It's younger activists, however, who seem to be framing the debate, especially in Hebron.

On Wednesday, masked Israeli demonstrators briefly took over another disputed building in the center of Hebron, forcing police and soldiers to scramble to the site to remove at least 15 boys, some of who appeared to be in their early teens.

"We need to respond by attacking them all over," said Yonatan Rachamin, a 25-year-old activist who looked on as police removed the demonstrators from the house. "The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) won't determine where to fight us. We will choose the battlefield."

Minutes later, activists up the road tried to barricade the street with stones to try and block an Israeli police van from carrying the demonstrators away for questioning.

As dusk fell, Israeli soldiers fired stun grenades at activists surrounding the disputed building, which supporters call the "House of Peace" and the Israeli media has dubbed the "House of Contention."

Protesters milled around the Hebron house wearing t-shirts featuring a photo of the building and the slogan: "In the House of Peace, there will be a war."

"There will be more actions like this," Rachamin said after the skirmishes subsided. "We won't be leaving quietly, hopefully at all."

(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this article.)


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