How Israel’s Occupation Came Home

Jewish reactionaries long active in the West Bank have brought their politics into Israel proper. Last month’s unprecedented violence was the result

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How Israel’s Occupation Came Home
Israeli special forces gather in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod on May 13, 2021, during clashes between Israeli far-right extremists and Arab-Israelis/Ahmad Gharabl/ AFP via Getty Images)

The violence that erupted across Israeli cities in May was unprecedented. At no time since Israel’s independence has the country witnessed such violence among ordinary civilians. After facing a backlash for extensively discussing the lynching of an Arab by Jews, captured on live TV, Israeli mainstream media quickly reverted to its habit of focusing on Jewish victims of violence. While the attacks carried out by Palestinian citizens of Israel were extensive and deadly, the overwhelming focus on that violence prevented the emergence of a much-needed debate within Israel about its growing problem of Jewish radicalization.

Israeli ministers and members of the Knesset claimed that Jewish violence was extraordinary and not reflective of the “Jewish way” and values. But this claim overlooks underlying causes, primarily that this mob violence was the culmination of multiple long-term trends that cohered into a toxic mix of unbridled brutality for several days in a row across Israeli cities. These trends brought distinct groups of Jewish rioters and vigilantes into Israel’s streets.

An overarching trend contributing to the Jewish violence was the spillage of practices employed in the occupied West Bank into Israel proper — a process described as the West-Bankization of Israel. The first of these practices is the settling of Jews in the midst of a Palestinian population in an effort to “Judaize” the area. Major epicenters of the violence occurred in the “mixed cities” of Lod, Jaffa, Acre, and Ramla. Those cities were entirely Arab prior to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War but became mixed as a result of the mass flight and expulsion of Palestinians during the war and the settlement of Jews in their place following the establishment of the State of Israel.

Starting in the early 2000s, Jewish groups, many of them settlers from the West Bank and Gaza, began settling in the midst of Palestinian or mixed neighborhoods in an effort to bring the Jews living there closer to their form of Orthodox Judaism and to increase the “Jewish character” of those cities. Alongside this, there were demands for mosques to lower the volume of their call to prayer and for children’s after-school programs to be segregated by ethnicity. Similar to the practice in the West Bank, these settlers enjoy hundreds of millions of shekels in funding from state coffers, while Arab neighborhoods suffer from discriminatory planning, zoning, and budgeting policies.

The groups that participated in the attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel were often settlers who arrived from the West Bank to Israeli cities.

Another manifestation of the West-Bankization of Israel is the reliance on vigilante settler violence. The groups that participated in the attacks on Palestinian citizens of Israel and their businesses and clashed with Arab rioters were often settlers who arrived from the West Bank to Israeli cities, some of them bussed in by settler organizations financed by the government. Two distinct groups of settlers arrived: The first group included people from mainstream settler society, some of whom were armed and combat-trained former soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). They were recruited by state-funded, far-right NGOs Regavim and Myisrael, among others, to “protect” the Jewish population in mixed cities.

The second group of settlers that arrived were from the so-called Hilltop Youth, whose involvement in violence was confirmed in Lod, Bat Yam, and Ramla. This visually distinctive group, the members of which wear large knitted yarmulkes and grow their sidelocks long and thick, reside in outposts (on hilltops) deemed illegal even under Israeli law. These youth are the outcome of growing radicalization of the religious Zionist camp following the 2005 pullout from Gaza, the disengagement, which entailed uprooting about 8,600 settlers from their homes in Gaza. The pullout, in addition to the violent evacuation of the illegal outpost of Amona in 2008, which was accompanied by a great deal of state violence, led a segment of Israel’s religious Zionist camp to adopt an increasingly anti-state outlook.

The rabbi who most represents this new radical approach is Yitzchak Ginsburg. In his view, the Zionist project is beyond redemption. Instead, he advocates that true believers should retreat into vanguard communities where they should establish alternative institutions, which one day will replace the Israeli state. Ginsburg teaches in seminaries across Israel and the West Bank and has encouraged his students to carry out retaliatory attacks against Palestinians. Ginsburg described vengeance against Arabs as connecting its perpetrators to nature, and thus to God. He also praised Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994, and justified killing any Gentile who may potentially and indirectly harm the Jewish people.

The Hilltop Youth, many of them high school dropouts, draw inspiration from Ginsburg in their shared justification and glorification of violence but are much more practically minded. These youth take over Palestinian lands and then use routine violence to displace their unlucky Palestinian neighbors by torching their agricultural lands and attacking and stealing their livestock in so-called Price Tag attacks.

But the Hilltop Youth are not merely violent outlaws. While they do, occasionally, attack Israeli security forces, their activities to dispossess and displace Palestinians are useful for the Israeli state. Following a 1992 promise made by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to President Bill Clinton, Israel halted the construction of new settlements. Instead, “outlaws” established outposts, illegal under Israeli law, which the Israeli state then connected to electricity and water and provided with IDF protection. The Hilltop Youth’s routine use of violence serves the larger goal of the Israeli state in the West Bank to displace as many Palestinians as possible from Area C (60% of the West Bank is under full Israeli control), which Israel’s right seeks to annex.

Similar to their practice in the West Bank where IDF soldiers rarely intervene to stop settler violence, multiple videos have shown the Israel Police doing nothing while Jewish rioters attacked Arab citizens in Israeli cities. Par for the course in the West Bank, the Israel Police were also caught on camera randomly attacking Palestinian detainees and shooting stun grenades in the middle of the night. This practice, called “displaying presence” or “white night,” is used routinely in the West Bank when the IDF suspects that an attack originated from a certain village but lacks intelligence concerning the perpetrator. IDF jeeps roll into the village at night, shoot stun and gas grenades, and barge into random homes.

A second long-term trend that came to the fore in the recent wave of violence is the increasing assertiveness of the Israeli far right in the streets, in the media, and in the political arena. The clearest manifestation of the growing political clout of the far right is the election to the Knesset of Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted on eight counts over the years, including supporting a terrorist organization, keeping propaganda material for a terrorist organization, and inciting racism. The terrorist organization in question is Kach, established by Rabbi Meir Kahane, a far-right former Israeli politician. Kahane lasted in the Knesset for only one term (1984-1988), during which the Knesset passed a law prohibiting parties that incite racism from running. After a prominent member of Kach, Baruch Goldstein, massacred Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994, Israel and other countries outlawed it as a terrorist organization.

The followers of Kahane (“Kahanists”) thus had no representative in the Knesset for 33 years. Rebranded and toned-down versions of Kach ran for the Knesset but kept missing the electoral threshold, with all the votes going to it being thrown out. Even as Israeli Jews shifted rightward following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the Kahanists had few takers. Ben-Gvir was able to enter the Knesset owing to the political machinations of one man: now-former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu wanted to ensure no right-wing votes were “wasted” in his effort to form a loyal right-wing coalition, after the refusal of Avigdor Lieberman, the head of right-wing party Yisrael Beiteinu, to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu.

Netanyahu made a series of political concessions and promised a ministerial position to Bezalel Smotrich, the head of a slightly less racist party, the National Union, in exchange for Smotrich to form a bloc with Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party ahead of recent election cycles. What was at stake for Netanyahu was not merely his grip over the premiership. Staying in the PM’s office would have allowed him to alter Israeli laws pertaining to the prosecution and conviction of sitting prime ministers and thus potentially avoid jail time if convicted in any of the ongoing corruption cases facing him.

Ben-Gvir and the Kahanists played a key role in escalating tensions and violence in Jerusalem. Ben-Gvir decided to establish a makeshift office in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood where Palestinian families are set to be dispossessed to make room for settlers. Just prior to the outbreak of the war with Gaza, Kahanists organized racist marches and mob attacks in the Old City of Jerusalem, where participants chanted and sang songs calling for the genocide of Arabs, inflaming tensions in the city.

The Kahanists gained not only political power but also legitimacy. When Kahane was a member of the Knesset, other members would walk out when he took to the podium, and Israel’s broadcasting authority (at the time, the sole radio and TV broadcaster) boycotted him. Now, Kahanists have been increasingly legitimized, both politically with the blessing of Netanyahu and also in Israeli media, where they have become frequently interviewed guests, despite their use of the platform to incite violence against Arabs.

The Kahanist right is also becoming increasingly brazen and organized on Israel’s streets. It is being led by two preexisting groups, Lehava and La Familia, which are centered in Jerusalem and are largely made up of Mizrahi Jews living in the capital’s impoverished Jewish neighborhoods. Lehava, a group headed by Benzi Gopstein, a student of Kahane, seeks to prevent “assimilation in the Holy Land,” meaning interracial relationships between Arabs and Jews. The group is responsible for mob attacks and attempted lynching of Palestinians, particularly ones who appear to be speaking to Jewish women in Jerusalem’s streets.

La Familia is the far-right ultras organization of Beitar Jerusalem, the capital’s leading soccer club. The group was profiled in the documentary “Forever Pure,” which was named after a large banner used by the fans during the club’s games to display their refusal to accept any Muslim players in the club. La Familia members proudly proclaim being racist and have been involved in multiple attacks on Arabs, leftist Jews, and media personalities.

Kahanists also dominated more than 100 WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram groups set up to organize violent attacks on Palestinians during the unprecedented wave of violence. Their videos, symbols, and political leaders, particularly Ben-Gvir, were frequently used by group participants. Achiya Schatz, the executive director of Fake Reporter, an Israeli NGO tracking disinformation online, reported that “Benzi Gopstein keeps creating new WhatsApp groups” due to the 256-member limit on group size on the app. Speaking about Ben-Gvir’s frequent media appearances and social media activity, Schatz said, “This is the great revival of Kahane. His ideology is being normalized.” The tone toward Netanyahu in those groups is largely supportive, likely owing to his role in ensuring the Kahanists’ return to the Knesset, Netanyahu’s own racist statements that contributed to legitimizing the Israeli far right, and the far-right attitudes of the Likud’s rank-and-file members.

The change in Israel’s media landscape also contributed to the violence by directly and overtly amplifying the narrative of Israel’s far right. Social media platforms, particularly TikTok, WhatsApp, and Telegram, were used to fuel and coordinate violence. TikTok videos uploaded in April by Palestinians showing them carrying out hate crimes against ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem prompted the initial mobilization of the far-right group Lehava. Far-right Jews then turned to Telegram, WhatsApp, and Facebook groups to coordinate mob violence against Arabs and receive instructions on the preparation of Molotov cocktails. Fake Reporter identified over 100 such groups across the different platforms, with at least 22,000 members. Social media also served as breeding ground for the spread of fake news, such as reports about Arabs marking the homes of Jews in Lod that would be attacked.

The secluded bubbles of social media, as well as mainstream media, fueled the sense of exclusive victimhood among both Arabs and Jews and encouraged the belief that “defensive” violence was necessary. Israeli mainstream media, throughout the coverage of conflicts with Gaza factions and violence between Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, focused on Jewish casualties and their sense of fear. When a lynching perpetrated by a Jewish mob in Bat Yam came into sharp focus because it was filmed live on TV, Israeli media outlets suffered a backlash from those accusing the media of being one-sided and leftist. The response to this backlash drew on a common right-wing trope, constantly advanced by Netanyahu, accusing Israel’s media of being part of the conspiracy (along with Israel’s judicial system) to bring him down.

A decade ago, it could be argued that Israeli mainstream media was dominated by liberals. But Netanyahu’s concerted effort to weaken critical voices in Israeli media, which are at the heart of two of the corruption scandals for which he has been indicted, changed this. During the outbreak of inter-communal violence, journalists working for mainstream media outlets called for mass-killing rioters and immunity for security forces for whatever crime they perpetrated to quell Arab riots. Mainstream Israeli media consistently referred to the violence against Jews as “pogroms” to evoke memories of mass killings of helpless Jews in Europe. Former IDF generals dominated the airways, while more critical voices were taken off the air.

Despite this, Israeli right-wingers raged both on and offline against the “leftist” media. This anger does not appear to be a spontaneous outburst but rather part of a systematic effort by Netanyahu to decrease Israelis’ faith in the media, which has exposed several of his corruption schemes, and to intimidate journalists. Leading the charge on this issue is Netanyahu’s son Yair, who called for people to attend a protest against the “lying media” in front of the studios of Israel’s two leading TV channels. His foot soldiers are people who self-identify as “Bibistim,” meaning (Bibi) Netanyahu supporters, and “Bibi’s Lions,” a group that is largely separate from the Kahanist networks.

The journalists targeted by those networks included mainstream TV hosts such as Rina Mazliah and Dana Weiss, as well as Guy Peleg, the criminal affairs reporter for Channel 12 who didn’t play a prominent role in covering the riots. He did, however, expose one of Netanyahu’s corruption scandals. The incitement didn’t end online. Soon after, journalists identified in the pro-Netanyahu Telegram and Facebook began receiving death threats, and four of them now have to move around with police protection. Jewish mobs, at times made up of La Familia members, and Israeli police repeatedly attacked Israeli journalists as they attempted to cover the riots.

The settlement enterprise and the military rule over millions of Palestinians naturally cannot remain behind the Green Line. The violence that swept across Israel last month shows that the abusive practices implemented in the West Bank, the impunity the settlers enjoy, the state’s reliance on terrorizing the Palestinian population to ensure its displacement, have infected all of Israel.

Netanyahu’s desperate failed efforts to form a government in the hope of somehow avoiding jail time led him to empower Israel’s far right. His incitement against the media and the politicians who eventually formed a government that unseated him is already yielding grim results. In May and June, the Knesset’s Guard took the extraordinary step of assigning around-the-clock protection for several right-wing members of the Knesset due to the deluge of death threats they have received. Netanyahu was willing to let Israel tear itself apart, as long as he got to preside over the madhouse he created during his 12 years in power.

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