YITZHAR, West Bank — This Jewish settlement of zealots on a stony hilltop has been branded by fellow Israelis as one of the most extreme in the West Bank, the vanguard of past violent confrontations with both the Israeli military and Palestinian neighbors.
The settlers of Yitzhar admit they are hard-core, but they say they are the tip of the spear that protects Israel — not baby-killers.
“You won’t hear even my most radical neighbors say that Duma was a good thing, at least out loud,” said Ezri Tubi, the newly elected resident spokesman for Yitzhar, referring to the Palestinian village where a toddler died last week in arsonists’ flames. The child’s father died from his burn wounds on Saturday, the family said.
The Jewish settlers of the West Bank say they are being persecuted by hypocritical Israeli politicians and the international community, which are condemning “Jewish terrorism” after a wave of extremist violence that has killed Israeli and Palestinian children in knife and arson attacks.
“We’re the most demonized people on Earth,” said Tubi, a guitar-strumming, 45-year-old YouTube maven, who has lived in Yitzhar for 13 years with his wife and children in a tidy wooden house he built with his own hands.
Tubi said members of his community had nothing to do with the recent violence.
“Puncturing tires? That might be another thing,” he said, referring to weekly acts of vandalism against Palestinians, acts that also include destroying olive trees and blocking access to springs, farm fields and religious sites. These deeds are often met by Palestinians throwing stones or sometimes gasoline bombs, or shooting at cars.
Ultranationalist Jewish settlers in the West Bank and their supporters, who insist that they have a right to biblical lands promised to them by God and who are represented by top ministers in Israel’s new government, are again under the microscope after the spate of violence.
This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government approved harsh new measures to curb “Jewish terrorism” after an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israeli attacked marchers in Jerusalem’s annual gay-pride parade with a knife, killing a 16-year-old Israeli girl. A day later, unknown arsonists torched two Palestinian homes in the West Bank village of Duma, burning a toddler alive and signing their handiwork with a spray-painted Star of David and the word “Revenge!” in Hebrew.
Tubi took Washington Post reporters around his hilltop settlement of modest homes with stunning views, where in the heat of August, kids in water wings splashed in the local swimming hole beside dads with holstered weapons. He said Jewish settlers are now under assault not just by the usual critics — the foreign media, the United Nations, the Israeli left and Arabs — but by the right-wing government they elected to advance their cause.
Tubi denied that adult Jewish settlers were to blame for “the crazies” who burn Palestinian children. He did not rule out that gullible teens from the hilltops of the West Bank might have been involved. But he questioned the idea that it was an organized effort by Jews. “I’m not ready to call it a conspiracy,” he said.
Tubi said that when Jews are shot, run over or stabbed by Palestinians, the world shrugs and that his own government considers Jewish lives “cheap.”
He promised that someday, the leaders of Israel would be ideologically driven Jewish settlers and not members of the moderate middle or the secular left.
“We are the tip of the spear,” he said. “We are the shield.”
The Netanyahu government’s threat of a crackdown allows for Israeli terrorism suspects to be held for months, even years, in “administrative detention” without charges or a trial, just like Palestinian terrorism suspects in the occupied West Bank, who face secretive military tribunals instead of civilian courts.
Palestinians and Israeli center-left critics say that the authorities will make a few token arrests, which probably will not lead to convictions, and that the status quo will continue.
There are more than 350,000 Jewish settlers now in the West Bank, on lands that Palestinians hope to have for a future state.
The United Nations reports that 17 Palestinians in the West Bank have been killed by Israeli forces in 2015; three Israelis have been killed by Palestinians.
In recent days Israeli authorities have arrested several alleged extremists, including Meir Ettinger, 23, grandson of the Brooklyn-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated for a Jewish state based on Torah law and the expulsion of Palestinians. Kahane was elected to the Israeli parliament, but his political party was later banned for alleged racism. He was assassinated in New York in 1990 by an Egyptian American.
Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, alleges that Ettinger is a leader of an underground Jewish terrorist movement that may be to blame for recent attacks on Muslim and Christian targets, including the firebombing of the church marking the mount where worshipers believe Jesus performed his loaves-and-fishes miracle.
Ettinger, a popular figure among the “hilltop youth,” wrote on Facebook before his arrest, “There is no terrorist organization, but there are lots and lots of Jews, much more than what they think, whose values are completely different from that of the High Court of Justice or the Shin Bet.”
Vandalism against mosques and churches in Israel sometimes includes spray-painted graffiti reading “Kahane was right,” as in a November arson attack at the only Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in Jerusalem. Two members of the group Lehava, brothers Shlomo and Nachman Twito, pleaded guilty last month in the case. At their sentencing, they sang hymns to God and declared, “The price was worth it.”
Lehava activists oppose the mingling of Muslims and Jews and warn Arab men to stay away from Jewish women.
On social media, the arsonist brothers were hailed as “heroes” with the promise of a parade upon their release.
At the Yitzhar settlement this week, crews of tanned hilltop youths with long side curls were constructing a new kindergarten. No Arab workers are allowed here, and the 240 resident families pride themselves on being “Hebrew labor,” unlike less-
ideological, or “lifestyle,” settlers who employ Palestinians to build and maintain their homes.
Also unlike other Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Yitzhar residents decided not to have a fence. “A fence means we need one,” Tubi said. “A fence means we have something to fear.”
Even so, Tubi said: “I sleep with a pistol under my pillow. I keep a dog. I lock the doors. There’s my wife’s gun, my gun, and I fear the choice I might have to make if we are attacked. Do I grab the children first or the gun?”
Tubi said he was once more radical (he was ordered out of the West Bank for incitement to riot), and so was Yitzhar. “But we decided to calm things down,” he said. “We decided no more clashes with the army.”
A year ago, the Israeli army commandeered the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in the Yitzhar settlement, saying the religious school and its rabbis were inciting violent acts of retribution, known as “price tag” attacks, against soldiers and Palestinians. The army withdrew from the yeshiva a month ago.
This week, a family of home-schoolers in Yitzhar was packing whole-wheat flour at their mill; a contractor was tending vineyards of Cabernet grapes for wine; tricycles lined the streets. Many families have many children — six is the average. One of the Yitzhar mothers is called “M-16,” for her 16 children (and a sly allusion to the military assault rifle).
“This is considered a radical settlement, and you’re here talking to me,” Tubi said. “The Israeli media show us as vicious.” But “we have clear lines: no guns” against soldiers or Palestinians, except in self-defense.
Tubi called the arson attack at the Palestinian village “terrible.”
Why? “It does damage to Israel,” he said.
“Lunatics are everywhere, but judge a society by what it says about its lunatics. Israel condemns them. Jews are almost on their knees begging for forgiveness.”
“Palestinians make their terrorists into heroes,” Tubi continued, echoing remarks by Netanyahu, who praised the Israeli response to the Duma attack while condemning Palestinian silence when Israelis are killed.
Many Israelis, however, are drawing a line between Jewish terrorism and right-wing incitement in the media and politics.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni charged that Netanyahu and his allies encourage extremists by their own rhetoric. “It’s the easiest thing to come and say: ‘It’s the extremists. We have no part in this,’ ” Livni said.
“Extremists exist only when there is a clear line between them and the mainstream. This line was blurred long ago, with the help of those here,” she said at an emergency session of the Israeli parliament after the recent attacks.
After speaking out against the attacks and saying he felt shame that the violence had come “from my own people,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was deluged with threats on social media calling him a “traitor” and depicting him in mock photographs as a Nazi with a Hitler mustache.
In another post, Gilad Kleiner, the son of a former Israeli parliamentarian, wrote on WhatsApp that he was “very pleased to hear this past hour about the passing of the stabbing victim from the abomination march held last Thursday,” a reference to the Israeli teenager who died after being attacked at the gay pride march.
Tubi said Israeli politicians would do well to read what is said on social media instead of in the news media. “If you want to know what real Israelis think, look at Facebook,” he said.
It doesn’t show politically correct statements in English designed for foreign consumption, he said. “It’s what we really believe.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.