Extremist Jewish militias and their links to the Israeli state

Extremist Jewish factions receive state protection and backing as they confront and attack Palestinians.

Israel’s ‘non-state actors’: How Jewish militias opposed to a Palestinian state regularly employ violence and intimidation tactics to achieve their goals
Eiko Ojala
Israel’s ‘non-state actors’: How Jewish militias opposed to a Palestinian state regularly employ violence and intimidation tactics to achieve their goals

Extremist Jewish militias and their links to the Israeli state

Israel’s extremist settler groups have earned a reputation for their aggression toward Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

While they have a history of conflict with their own government because of their radical opposition to a Palestinian state, their influence in national politics has notably risen in recent years.

Settler groups are branded as “non-state actors” and criticised within Israel for the illegal annexation of Palestinian land. But now that the most right-wing government in Israel's history is running the country and is fighting a relentless war on Gaza, a more complex reality has emerged.

Settlers are deeply entrenched in religious Zionism, which is centred on establishing an ethno-state exclusively for Jews.

These political ambitions set them apart from the Haredi brand of orthodox Judaism with which they are associated. These settlers have expansionist aims to take over the West Bank and Gaza completely.

Intricate links to the state

While Tel Aviv officially stands back from such hardline demands, the extent of the groups’ actual ties to key parts of Israel’s political system reveals a more intricate set of links.

Research into the status of ultra-Orthodox settler factions within the larger framework of the religious Zionist movement has found that they significantly influence Israeli politics. And they have a longer track record of violence, as well as extremism than is often realised.

Dr. Eran Zedekiah, an expert in religious nationalism at The Regional Thinking Forum, says that settler expansionism is a core component of Zionist ideology.

Eiko Ojala

Anytime an Israeli government indicates a willingness to concede illegally occupied Palestinian territory, these groups violently revolt and form militias that directly challenge state policies.

But this is hardly a new phenomenon.

In the 1980s, Jewish extremist groups carried out covert operations in the West Bank, including violent attacks on citizens and even assassinations of Palestinian mayors.

These plots were driven by fears of territorial concessions to Palestinians after Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin himself was assassinated by an Israeli extremist, demonstrating the depths of the resistance to any kind of concession and the lengths they were prepared to go to in opposition to the Oslo Accords and any moves toward long-term peace via a two-state solution.

Read more: 30 years after Oslo, Palestinian state elusive as ever

Escalating violence

This violence continues today, as seen by the escalation of violence by radical religious Zionist movements, such as the Hilltop Youth, which remain deeply embedded in West Bank settlements.

While these groups sometimes clash with Israeli army forces, their broader settler expansionist activity is carried out with the tacit support of the military. They are also funded by political entities, including some that receive state subsidies.

While extremist Jewish groups sometimes clash with Israeli army forces, their broader settler expansionist activity is carried out with the tacit support of the military.

Yaakov Peri, the former director of Israel's Shin Bet security service (ISA), claims that the state regularly prosecutes settlers who overtly break the law and confront the government. He points to the 2016 anti-terrorism law, which made it easier to detain or prosecute members of these groups for acts of terrorism.

In an interview with Al Majalla, Peri detailed some of his encounters with these militias in the 1980s. He explained how they were behind a string of murders of Palestinians in Hebron, as well as assassinations of Palestinian mayors.

Plans to bomb the Al Aqsa Mosque compound were also uncovered, as well as a plan to attack buses transporting Palestinians in occupied east Jerusalem.

These groups were led by figures currently serving as ministers in the current Israeli government, namely Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.  

Read more: Ben-Gvir and Smotrich: The extremist duo who rose to power in Israel

Peri says that while these groups do not directly receive state funds, they often obtain private donations like those given to individual settlers, complicating their categorisation as "non-state actors".

Moreover, some benefit from the support and contributions of international Jewish organisations, which share their messianic vision.

A fine distinction exists between extremist settler groups – who attack Palestinian farmers by evicting them from their property and destroying their crops – and renegade Israeli citizens who receive tacit state support.

Armed Israeli settlers in the newly established Eviatar settlement outpost near the city of Nablus in the northern occupied West Bank

Operational autonomy 

Hagit Ofran, an activist with the Israeli Peace Now movement that tracks settler activities in the West Bank, emphasises the intricacy of this issue.

She points out that these factions operate with a degree of autonomy outside the formal state apparatus. Yet, they maintain a connection to the state, receiving both protection and backing as they confront and attack Palestinians.

"We have not uncovered evidence of any officially recognised group or entity aiming to overthrow or replace the Israeli government," she explains.

"Nevertheless, there are groups like the Hilltop Youth in West Bank settlements and farm settlers who have illegally taken over land to build homes and farms, hindering Palestinian movement."

"Since 2018, these activities have become more pronounced, and these groups are increasingly aligning with extremist settler factions that clash with the state."

"Although direct government funding for these settler farms and activists has yet to be found, they benefit from the support of state-affiliated actors and organisations that receive indirect financing from government ministries and official bodies."

"Notable examples include the Amana movement, which is instrumental in settlement activities in Gush Emunim, and initiatives by Minister Smotrich that seek to legitimise the status of settlement farms."

Ofran highlighted that the war in Gaza further exposed the close links between settler groups and state institutions. It also revealed how the state armed settlers and tasked them to defend settlements.

Extremist Jewish factions receive state protection and backing as they confront and attack Palestinians.

On his part, Yehuda Shaul — who for many years led Shovrim Shtika, an organisation established by former Israeli soldiers to highlight the actions of the army and settlers in the West Bank — provided insights into the complexity of the issue.

 "It's sometimes hard to differentiate between a civilian settler and a soldier settler due to their deeply interwoven relationships with the military daily," he said.

"Soldiers stationed in specific areas often form friendly ties with settlers, leading to a relaxed approach to law enforcement against settlers' violations. Moreover, soldiers assigned to protect settlements are sometimes directed by settlers appointed to oversee security, complicating the command structure and operational integrity."

After the 7 October attacks and as the conflict escalated, settlers were integrated into expanded protection units. In effect, this meant that the military was arming extremist factions, further blurring the lines between non-state actors and the state.

Shaul categorises extremist Zionist factions into three groups. First, some factions champion the establishment of the Kingdom of Judah. These groups extend beyond the aspiration for a "complete Land of Israel," advocating for a Jewish state governed by Torah laws. Their goal is to separate Judaism from democracy, accelerating the transition to the Kingdom of Judah.

The terrorist settler arson attack on a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma in 2015 was carried out by Jewish factions who champion this ideology. In the attack,18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh was burned alive in the fire, while both his parents died from their injuries within weeks.

These groups also carry out "price tag" attacks, which include racist graffiti and property damage both within and outside the Green Line, such as the arson of a church in the Tabgha region near Tiberias.

Jewish settler attacks in the Occupied West Bank have been on the rise since 7 October 2023.

Second, there are unaffiliated settler groups that operate independently of official structures and religious bodies. These settlers are known for inciting riots and disturbances, primarily driven by religious zeal.

Third, the classic settlers represent those committed to community-building and land acquisition throughout the region without necessarily pushing for confrontation or seeking to overthrow the state. This group is distinct from settlement farm owners, who display more aggressive tendencies.

State integration

Professor Moti Anbari — an American academic and expert in this field — draws a distinction between extremist Zionist groups. He says some are wholly opposed to the Israeli state and only seek salvation in the Biblical sense.

In contrast, others are integrated into state institutions, like the Knesset, and want to affect change from within in their quest to realise a true Biblical Jewish state.

These groups see the military as essential for moves toward a "Biblical state" and want to shift the army's ideology rather than defeat it.

Anbari draws a parallel between this brand of thinking and that of groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda in that their goal is to seize power. Nonetheless, the militants holding these views owe their survival to the state of Israel and the mercy of its institutions. 

Society's dramatic shift to the far right has been perfectly illustrated by an Israeli Voice Index poll taken on 5 November about Israel's military assault in Gaza.

When it came to the use of force in Gaza, 57.5% of Israeli Jews said that they believed the Israeli army was using too little firepower in Gaza, 36.6% said it was using an appropriate amount of firepower, while only 1.8% said they believed it was using too much firepower.

In conclusion, the rise of Jewish extremist groups has increasingly blurred the lines between state and non-state actors. Failure to hold such groups to account for their crimes under both international and Israeli law will only further embolden them to continue and expand their operations.

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