Radical settlers trigger soul-searching in Israel

Wed Dec 14, 2011 6:47am EST
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By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Young Jewish settlers behind attacks on Palestinian mosques have shaken Israel by turning violent against its most revered institution, the conscript military.

The zealots' escalation from anti-Arab vandalism and arson to a rampage at an Israeli garrison in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday triggered concern for the future of an ideologically riven society that sees its armed forces as a bulwark of unity.

"The red lines have been crossed," was Maariv tabloid's main headline on Wednesday. An officer slightly hurt by rocks was quoted as saying his assailants had called him a Nazi, trashing a taboo in their fury at Israel's occasional crackdowns on settlements built without government authorization.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to step up enforcement and "stop the bad things while they are minor." But a top military commander told Reuters that hostility to state authority was "unfortunately not an aberration" among settlers.

"We have to deal with this with all means now, because these people are part of us, the Jewish people, and we'd best find a way to remain a democracy," he said on condition of anonymity.

Security sources said the radical settlers, frequently known as the "Hilltop Youth" for their rogue outpost-building and pioneer rhetoric, number several hundred but enjoy wider, tacit support among the 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank.

Palestinians see all settlers as interlopers on land they want for a state and have long complained they are the source of harassment that is largely ignored by Israeli authorities.

The first settlers were viewed by many compatriots as a patriotic vanguard on territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war. But some of their offspring, in the thrall of messianic and supremacist rabbis, combined an ecstatic skullcaps-and-sandals piety with the spurning of secular Israeli rule.   Continued...