YISHUV HADAAT, West Bank (Reuters) - The caves around this windy settler outpost, whose name is Hebrew for “Of Sound Mind”, have served as places of meditation and prayer - and, according to Israel - staging ground for the worst Jewish militant attack on Palestinians in years.
It was from Yishuv Hadaat, prosecutors say, that 21-year-old Amiram Ben-Uliel set off on a moonlit July night to firebomb a house in the nearby West Bank valley town of Duma, killing a baby, Ali Dawabsheh, and his parents Saad and Riham.
Ben-Uliel’s indictment for the murders on Sunday met with denial and defiance from other members of the so-called “Hilltop Youth”, a new generation of ultra-religious settlers whose resentment of the secular Israeli state rivals their hostility toward Arabs.
“I don’t think Jews did it. Even if they did do it, you need to look at why ... The (Israeli) police and government really fight them in every way,” said Refael Morris, a 20-year-old friend of Ben-Uliel’s from a neighboring settlement enclave.
Steeped in messianic Jewish mysticism and rebelling against what they see as adulterated modern Zionism, the Hilltop Youth number in the hundreds, by most accounts. But they pose a deep-rooted challenge even for the nationalist government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as it struggles to stanch Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed in the absence of peace negotiations.
Security officials say that Ben-Uliel is among a few dozen hard-core militants, many of them school drop-outs or estranged from their families, who long eluded surveillance due to their secrecy and determination to clam up under police interrogation.
Critics say the Duma murders, which marked an escalation from the vandalism and assaults previously attributed to the militants, were inevitable given Israel’s at times murky policing of its citizens in the West Bank - all of whom are deemed by world powers to be squatters on occupied Palestinian land.
The inconsistency is in plain view in Yishuv Hadaat and other outposts erected in recent years by the Hilltop Youth without state permission. What began as rogue clusters of shacks are now often orderly trailer parks or shepherds’ hamlets with power lines, paved roads, bus stops and Israeli army sentries.
Still, residents style these communities that dot the strategic highlands as the vanguard of a dreamed-of Jewish theocracy where gentiles would be expelled, putting paid to decades-old Israeli talk of making way for a Palestinian state.
“If we wouldn’t be here, the Arabs would be here, and whatever the Arabs get now it will be very hard to take back,” said Morris, who sports the Hilltop Youth trademark shaggy beard and religious sidecurls along with a crocheted skullcap.
A 20-year-old son of British immigrants, Morris is a married father of two. He works as a baker, having been exempted from the Israeli military draft, he says, on ideological grounds. Many settlers with far-right affiliations say they are also denied private gun permits and subject to police monitoring.
But the Duma arson, and what Israel’s Shin Bet security service said were manifestos circulated among the suspects and which called for insurrection against the state, prompted the crackdown that officials hope will rout the Jewish militants.
Outside experts see a rocky road ahead.
The Duma case is already beset by defense lawyers’ allegations that Ben-Uliel, as well as a 17-year-old charged with planning the arson but not turning up to the cave rendezvous, were tortured to give false confessions.
While most Israelis condemn the hate crimes and Netanyahu has defended the Shin Bet’s methods as legitimate and necessary, within the far-right Jewish Home party that sits in his coalition there have been misgivings about the probe. One party lawmaker asserted there is no such thing as Jewish terrorism.
Tomer Persico, who researches the Hilltop Youth for the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, described the militants as an extremist distillation of the views of wider circles of settlers, a community driven by a sense of pioneering patriotism and hardened by almost daily friction with the Palestinians.
“They are taking these elements and, in a fundamentalist way, accentuating them to the point where they live in unlawful settlements anywhere they want and (their relationship) with the Palestinians is violent and sometimes murderous,” he said.
Another scholar, Sara Yael Hirschhorn of Oxford University, said that while the Hilltop Youth’s religious doctrines had only fringe appeal, sympathizers reached deeper into Israeli society.
On Tuesday, a soldier who lives in a West Bank settlement was jailed for 45 months after being found guilty of leaking information to Jewish militants about law-enforcement moves planned against them by the army.
“I find it hard to believe no one else (in the settler community) knew what was going on those hilltops,” Hirschhorn said.
“I think they (authorities) will manage to throw the book at these people, but it will be perceived by the right as a show trial, and such trials are also a way to organize these people.”
Writing by Dan Williams; Editing Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff