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Sun 18 Dec 2011 03:49 PM

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Will Israel declare war on its violent, right-wing settlers?

A not insignificant number of Israelis in the West Bank are unhinged zealots, writes Jeffrey Goldberg

Will Israel declare war on its violent, right-wing settlers?
Israeli President Shimon Peres inspects a mosque set on fire by Jewish hardliners on Oct 3, 2011

The Israeli Defense Forces are increasingly confronting a
truth that many Palestinians learned awhile ago: A not-insignificant number of
the Israelis who have settled on the West Bank are unhinged zealots who, in
their self-righteousness, myopia and contempt for those with whom they
disagree, comprise a kind of Jewish Hamas.

The Israeli army deploys a great deal of manpower to protect
settlers from terrorism. There is no conceivable way the settlers would be
alive today without the protection of Israel’s soldiers, many of whom object to
settlements but are doing their duty.

Yet the army has now become a target of a violent band of
settlers called the Hilltop Youth. These “youth,” many in their 20s and even
30s by now (and guided by rabbis in their 70s and 80s), are the offspring of
the first and second generation of religious settlers. They reject what they see
as their parents’ bourgeois lifestyle and despise the government in Jerusalem
to which their parents are more or less loyal.

The Hilltop Youth became a source of great anguish in Israel
this week after a gang of 50 settlers stormed an army base adjacent to the
Kedumim settlement in the northern West Bank and threw rocks at both soldiers
and Palestinians. The commander of the army’s Ephraim Brigade was struck in the
head with a rock.

Violent bands of settlers have been throwing rocks at
Palestinians, and on occasion defacing their mosques and ripping up their olive
trees, for some time. These are known as “price tag” attacks, meant to scare
the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of making concessions
on settlements. (Every demolition of an unauthorized “hilltop” settlement comes
with a price, in other words.)

Many Israelis have been aghast at the notion of Jews
behaving like Cossacks, but many others were blithely unaware of these attacks,
when they were launched against Arabs. Now, there should be no ignoring these
berserkers. An attack on the army is an attack on the state itself.

I know many of these Hilltop Youth well; some are degenerate
pot smokers, but others are focused and fanatical. Israel has the ability to
smother this movement, if it chooses. There are a finite number of hyperviolent
settlers -- hundreds at the core of the movement, and perhaps a few thousand
fellow travelers. During the first Palestinian uprising, the army showed an
enormous capacity to collect and warehouse Palestinian rock-throwers and
mayhem-makers. It could do the same now with these settler gangs. And I know just
the place to warehouse them.

More than 20 years ago, as a young draftee in the Israeli
army, I was assigned briefly to serve as a military policeman at Israel’s
largest prison camp, a place called Ketziot, in the Negev desert, by the
Egyptian border. It was an unhappy assignment, for a number of reasons,
including the heat, the isolation and the fact that I was opposed to the
occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But I learned a great deal in Ketziot about Palestinian
nationalism, about the desert and about the Israeli army’s organizational
capabilities. The prison - an open-air tent camp, actually - held, at any given
moment, 6,000 Palestinians, serving sentences from two months to several years.

Ketziot was no picnic; it was overcrowded and occasionally
violent, but the prisoners were often left to their own devices. There was a
tacit ceasefire between the Israeli authorities and members of the Palestine
Liberation Organization inside the prison that allowed the Palestinians to
manage their own affairs (a metaphor for the Oslo peace process, in
retrospect), and the army provided the prisoners with basic health care, hot
showers and adequate food.

Kosher food, actually - the Israeli army is a kosher army - and
this fact, among others, makes Ketziot ready- made to accept violent settlers
who need to be taught that their society will no longer abide their

The Netanyahu government has said it will take a few new
legal measures in response to these incidents, including holding settlers under
administrative detention laws and trying them in military courts. But so far it
seems only modestly outraged. It doesn’t seem to grasp that it is only a matter
of time before the price-tag campaign escalates.

These fanatics represent a perverse branch of Zionism. There
is a war in Israel between Jews who believe that Zionism is a movement seeking
Jewish national equality, and those who believe that Zionism is about the
redemption of the lands of the Bible - all the lands of the Bible, ideally - in
the name of God. This maximalist view, which would be alien to Zionism’s
founders, is a catastrophe for Israel, Jews and Judaism.

If the Netanyahu government were to announce that it was
repurposing Ketziot to accept violent settlers, and that settlers who attack a
soldier - or uproot an olive tree, or burn down a mosque -  would be buying themselves a long-term stay in
an unforgiving prison, it would send a clear message. And it would show the
world that the Israeli government, and not a collection of racist and extremist
rabbis, makes Israeli policy.

 (Jeffrey Goldberg is
a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The
opinions expressed are his own.)