|Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the state must destroy six illegal outposts by the end of 2012 [Credit: Jonathan Guyer]
Oz Zion, West Bank - Heroic youth. Righteous Jews. Hill top kids. Crazy folks. Nationalist criminals. Vigilantes. Terrorists. The price tag movement.
Countless names exist for a group of settlers in the occupied West Bank that exact retribution against Palestinians and the Israeli army in response to policies targeting the settlement movement. The group has burned and desecrated mosques, destroyed olive groves on private Palestinian land, harassed people and property, and most recently confronted an Israeli army base. The last assault on December 13 forced Israel's government and the Israeli public to take note of this rogue element in their society.
Police arrested two of these young settlers on Wednesday evening in the illegally constructed outpost of Oz Zion. The reason for their arrest remains unknown.
Oz Zion, or "Zion's might", a newly built outpost erected on private Palestinian land, is east of Ramallah and neighbours the larger settlement of Givat Assaf in the occupied West Bank. The hilltop resembles a campsite with five makeshift wooden sheds, where a few dozen residents live.
A new Aliyah
The average age of those living on the hill is less than 20 and many of the residents' parents live within Israel's green line. A group of girls inhabit a poorly insulated shed as a declaration of commitment to "the land of the Fathers". Young boys carry planks of wood through a barren hilly landscape to build another home as a means of asserting their ownership over the land.
"We know we have to continue building. We can't stop."
- Oz Zion settler
"We know we have to continue building. We can't stop," a 21-year-old youth fervently said.
The dynamics between the residents of Oz Zion and the Israeli authorities are a clear illustration of the confrontation between the concepts of the 'Land of Israel' (religious and nationalist convictions) and the State of Israel (the civic, legal and political entity). Last month, the Israeli police and army dismantled the illegal outpost in a dawn raid. A YouTube video testimonial of the incident was later circulated on the internet. However, the authorities' actions have not deterred the residents of Oz Zion from rebuilding the hilltop. In fact it has only intensified their zeal.
"Our government wants to destroy us, so we have to be prepared to fight back," the young settler said.
He compared the settlement of the land to an Aliyah - an ascent or immigration to the Jewish state. While Aliyah may be difficult, it is worth it, he explained. "What we are doing is for the people of Israel; I am not looking for a comfortable life."
Paying the price
The residents of Oz Zion claim that they are not involved in the "price tag movement", the name given to violent acts by Jewish settlers to prevent security services from dismantling illegal outposts by making the price too high to bear. However they have felt the repercussions of these attacks.
Since a group of right-wing activists vandalised the Israeli army's Eprhaim Brigade in the northwest West Bank and attacked two Israeli army commanders on December 13, the army allocated 30 per cent of its troops to fight price tag attacks.
Both Tel Aviv and leaders of the settlement movement condemned the assault on the base. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, called the attack "a stain on Israel's democracy". Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council, the principal voice of the settlement movement, also denounced the raid, describing it as a "shameful ungrateful atrocity".
Following the attack, Netanyahu announced a set of new steps to be applied to violent settlers. Yet radical settlers have said they will use whatever tools necessary to show that settlements and outposts should not and will not be dismantled.
"We want to go to Ramallah, and Lebanon, and Sinai, and Gaza and live there," a young settler, renowned for being the "best builder in Judaea and Samaria" said.
He dismissed the attack on the army base. "The government is just making noise," he added.
In a conflict-driven region, critics question whether the rise in settler violence and direct attack on the Ephraim Brigade signals a new era or whether the episode will go into a collective historical oblivion. Some are asking whether the group is a fifth column in Israel and why the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security forces, remains impotent in the face of these settlers.
"When you invade an army base and cause damage I think that is a wake-up call," a former US senior official said.
The attack may be a sign that some settlers are using extremer strategies to protect their homes. Yet Avinoam, a 29-year-old student at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, disagreed. Police have linked students from Merkaz Harav Yeshiva to the attack on the Ephraim Brigade.
He compared the price tag attacks to the summer riots in London and said that just like the youth in London, "these kids have some issues like we all do, you can't hold a grudge against anyone that looks like them and holds the same political opinions".
Sitting in a West Jerusalem cafe, Avinoam described the doctrine behind the settler movement: "It started as something known as mutual solidarity. When they [the army] destroy one hilltop they [the settlers] build another hilltop."
The recent settler-army confrontation has provoked questions about Israel's disengagement from the occupied West Bank. If the response to dismantling small outposts was so violent, how will the government disengage from larger settlements? Nearly half a million settlers live in towns built illegally under international law and the number of those occupying outposts is unknown.
Israel's Supreme Court has ruled that the state must destroy at least six illegal outposts in the West Bank by the end of 2012.
"There is more political tension and campaigns by the settlers because they are trying to do their utmost to prevent the demolitions," said Hagit Ofran, a senior official at Israeli group Peace Now, who monitors the expansion of Israeli settlements. Ofran, who has taken a lead role in petitioning the court to dismantle these illegal outposts, has had her own run-in with these settlers. In November, settlers vandalised her home, slashed her neighbour's tyres, and grafittied death threats like "Rabin is waiting for you", in reference to the murder of the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
As part of an attempt to overcome and delegitimise the Supreme Court decision to dismantle certainillegal outposts by the end of 2012, settlers and right-wing groups have joined together to push forward legislation in Israel's parliament to legalise the outposts. To promote the ruling, a new ad campaign depicts ministers who oppose the bill wearing army uniforms with Peace Now badges. A caption reads: "Members of Peace Now Eviction Forces".
"The problem is that the government is afraid. There is a reason why for 44 years there has not been real enforcement of laws against them."
- Hagit Ofran
"The problem is that the government is afraid. There is a reason why for 44 years there has not been real enforcement of laws against them," Ofran said.
Separate legal systems have existed in the occupied West Bank for Palestinians and Jewish settlers. Palestinians are tried under administrative detention - imprisonment without trial - while Jewish settlers are not. Human rights group have criticised this measure, which strips individuals to due process of law.
In reaction to the attack on the Israeli base, Netanyahu announced that the use of detention without charge and trial through military courts would also apply to "those who raise a hand against Israeli soldiers or Israel police personnel". Thus far, not one of the attackers has been convicted.
'Conspiracy of silence'
Although Tel Aviv has condemned the surge in settler attacks, they have not rethought Israel's settlement expansion project. Netanyahu stressed that he does not believe settlements are the problem. "It is important to me to emphasise that this is a small group that does not represent the public that lives in Judea and Samaria, who are loyal to the state and its laws and who condemn the rioting," he said on December 14.
The expansion of the settlements has not been possible without the co-operation of state and legal institutions.
"It [settler violence] is a movement that has political and legal protection," Hassan Jaafar, the director of Mossawa Centre, an advocacy organisation for Arab citizens in Israel, said.
He explained these settlers are granted lawyers to "support and protect them", the media to "explain them", and money to "finance them".
The former US senior official characterised the state's complicity in a similar way.
"I think the army and the Shin Bet know exactly where they [those who attacked the Ephraim Brigade] are and I think it has essentially been a conspiracy of silence," he said.
"It is part of the coddling that has gone on with the settlement movement for the past 30 years. As you sow, so shall you reap."
Follow Roxanne Horesh on Twitter: @RoxanneHoresh