Jerusalem – The arrest of a well-known Jewish extremist marks Israel’s first concrete step in its new “zero tolerance” approach toward what the government describes as Jewish terrorism.
A recent pair of attacks brought into the open long-standing fears about a radicalized and ultraconservative fringe that had been operating below the radar but now appears to be intensifying its violence.
Israel’s Shin Bet security service says 23-year-old Meir Ettinger, grandson of the late ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, was arrested for “involvement in an extremist Jewish organization” that was seeking to bring about religious “redemption” through attacks on Christian sites and Palestinian property.
With its focus primarily on preventing Palestinian terrorism, Israeli authorities now pledge to direct more resources toward domestic assailants who have been allowed to operate with relative impunity. The threat is nothing new, but authorities indicate they can no longer overlook the violence.
Here’s a look at the phenomenon and what it means for Israel.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED?
On Wednesday, the Shin Bet singled out Ettinger when it announced it had cracked the June arson attack on the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, a prominent Catholic church near the Sea of Galilee. It accused Ettinger of heading a movement of young settler activists who were responsible for the torching and a number of other hate crimes.
Two of them were indicted for burning the church.
The next day, an anti-gay ultra-Orthodox extremist stabbed six revelers at Jerusalem’s Gay Pride Parade, killing one of them — a 16-year-old Jewish girl. Then, on Friday morning, suspected Jewish assailants set fire to a West Bank home, burning a Palestinian toddler to death and seriously wounding his parents and 4-year-old brother.
Israel has responded with outrage. President Reuven Rivlin visited the Arab victims in hospital and expressed his shame over those who “have lost their humanity.” Extremists have since threatened him and posted images of him in Nazi garb and a Hitler-like mustache, invoking memories of the kind of incitement that preceded the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
WHO ARE THE ATTACKERS?
No one knows for sure who exactly was behind Friday’s arson but because of the target and Hebrew graffiti found on the charred home, suspicion immediately fell on Jewish settler extremists.
So-called “price tag” attacks have been used by Jewish settlers for years to avenge both Palestinian attacks and also official Israeli steps they see as favoring the Palestinians.
The suspects generally belong to a group known as the “hilltop youth,” radicalized Jewish teen squatters on unauthorized settlement encampments on West Bank hilltops.
Members of the group have been behind a series of vandalism attacks against Palestinian homes, agriculture and livestock, as well as mosques, churches and even Israeli schools and military bases.
The attacks have been condemned by the entire political spectrum as well as the mainstream settler leadership.
Jewish assailants have traditionally drawn their inspiration from a small group of zealous settler rabbis.
But Shlomo Fischer, senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and an expert on radical Jewish extremism, said these new-age messianic attackers “conceive of themselves as having a sort of charismatic-prophetic authority and what authorizes these extreme actions is ‘the voice of God’ within them.”
WHAT DO THEY WANT?
It’s not entirely clear. Initially seen as a pressure tactic on the government to cease making concessions to Palestinians and support settler expansion, the movement has now taken on more of a religious bent, going so far as to call for a revolution that alters the nature of Israel.
The Shin Bet says Ettinger’s group vandalized a number of Christian religious sites in the past two years and tried to disrupt the 2014 visit by Pope Francis to the Holy Land.
Through a blog peppered with biblical references, Ettinger rails against Christians and other “idol worshippers” that undermine Israel’s Jewish nature.
He also attacks the country’s liberal and pluralistic foundations. “There are many, many Jews, many more than people think, whose value system is completely different than that of the Israeli Supreme Court or the Shin Bet,” he wrote in a July 30 post. “The laws they are bound by are not the State’s laws … but laws that are much more eternal and real.”
WHAT IS “JEWISH TERRORISM?”
In many ways, Ettinger’s grandfather is the godfather of modern Jewish militancy.
Kahane’s Kach party was outlawed in Israel and labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.
While the Orthodox rabbi himself mostly preached for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, his followers took on more tangible forms of violence. The most prominent was Baruch Goldstein, who shot and killed 29 Muslim worshippers in 1994 at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. A handful of others either planned or carried out attacks on Arabs.
Until recently, Israel has been reluctant to deem “price tag” activists as terrorists. Their attacks have mostly not been deadly and they’ve generally been regarded as teenage vandals and thugs, an embarrassment more than an actual threat.
HOW IS ISRAEL RESPONDING?
Across the board, there has been an outpouring of condemnation and grief.
Thousands took to the streets to protest the attacks and well-wishers have flocked to the hospital where the wounded Palestinian family is being treated. All the political parties have condemned the attack and parliament convened a special session Tuesday to discuss the latest events, calling for soul searching.
The government has also provided security services more tools at their disposal. The Cabinet officially called the firebombing “a terrorist attack in every respect” and authorized the Shin Bet greater leeway to hold suspects without trial or charges, a tool that has been deployed against Palestinian militants.
Yoav Limor, a military columnist at the conservative Israel Hayom newspaper, said the latest moves suggest Israel “has decided to drop the kid gloves” and will likely round up more activists to “shake the tree in hopes that some fruit will fall to the ground” in the form of intelligence that helps solve the latest arson attack and thwart future ones.
Netanyahu has also urged the world to be as forceful in its condemnation of attacks against Jews as it was in the deadly attack against Arabs.