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Hilltop Youth push to settle West Bank

Mitzpe Avichai outpost
Israeli authorities recently destroyed structures that had been built at the outpost

By Erica Chernofsky
BBC News, Jerusalem

While many Israeli teenagers spend the summer hanging out on beaches or in shopping malls, Evyatar Slonam, 17, is sitting on an exposed hillside in the southern West Bank at the Jewish outpost of Mitzpe Avichai.

"We want there to be a mall right here," explains his friend Yehoyada, 15, indicating the hilltop surrounded by Palestinian houses and olive groves. "Tel Aviv once looked like this, too."

Mr Slonam fingers his long, brown sidelocks as he attempts to explain the ideology that drives some young Israelis known as the the Hilltop Youth to flout both Israeli and international law and build shacks they hope will eventually become established settlements in the West Bank.

The US is demanding that Israel stops building in all settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law.

Outposts are illegal even under Israeli law, and Israel agreed to remove them under the 2003 US-sponsored Road Map peace plan.

Israeli authorities have stepped up demolitions of smaller outposts - and the settlers are accelerating building and rebuilding structures at the sites.

Evyatar Slonam, youth at Mitzpe Avichai outpost
Evyatar Slonam was raised in a religious home and his parents support his activism

The Hilltop Youth movement's members are often found camping out in the makeshift communities, and have a reputation as wayward teens eager to clash with Israeli authorities and Palestinians alike.

Mr Slonam says the only law he heeds is the law of God.

"God gave us all of Israel, it all belongs to the Jews."

"It's not like I'm going to Egypt and claiming land there. This is Israel," he says of the land Israel has occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

"It's the land of the Israeli people, the Jewish people, so we're allowed to be here."

Raised in a religious home in the Tzofim settlement, he studies in a seminary for much of the year, and says he is not at all interested in girls or alcohol and his parents support his activism.

A large skullcap, or yarmulke, covers his head and tzitzit, a religious fringed garment, hangs down from under his scruffy T-shirt.

I won't lie, of course it was exciting. I knew I was going to get into fights. There were kids who only wanted to do it for the excitement and the fun, but for me it came from a real ideology that was important to me
Yonatan

Human rights groups say young settlers are in many cases involved in clashes with Palestinians.

But Mr Slonam says he has never attacked Palestinians, even when stones have been thrown his way - and would only fight Israeli security forces if they used violence to force him from the outpost.

Last week, police forces destroyed the makeshift homes. They have since been replaced with a tent, a structure made of wooden posts and metal slats, and old sofas on the rocky hillside.

The residents sleep on mattresses on the ground, relieve themselves in the open air and shower at a nearby settlement.

Gaza anger

Mr Slonam became involved with the Hilltop Youth during the 2005 evacuation of some 8,000 Jews from settlements in Gaza.

Many right wingers felt betrayed by their country - which originally sent the settlers there - and by the army that forcibly removed those who refused to leave.

Map showing outpost of Mitzpe Avichai


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"It was very hard for me," he says, "I felt I had to do something."

He has been arrested twice, once here at Mitzpe Avichai, for refusing to leave by police order.

"I understand laws," he says, "but I know that if I'm not here the same thing that happened in [the Gaza settlement block of] Gush Katif will happen again.

"We gave [the Palestinians] land and they gave us rockets," he says, in reference to the rise in attacks on southern Israel that accompanied the Islamist group Hamas's rise to power in the wake of the withdrawal.

Late last year, following a wave of settler violence, Israeli Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog dubbed the Hilltop Youth a "security threat" and a "dangerous phenomenon".

Announcing plans to open "rehabilitation" centres for the youth, he said: "Just as there are programs for criminal youths, there must be programs for hilltop youth, too.

"In the long term, a warm home and the proper framework can push the [appeal of the] hilltops aside."

'Rebellion'

Yonatan, 21, says he was once a "notorious" Hilltop Youth.

He comes from a religious family, but rebelled by turning secular, dropping out of high school and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

It is a militant bohemianism. Yes, they have nationalistic goals, but they also want to get away from bourgeois society, to get away from the system
Shlomo Fischer
Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University

Yonathan was arrested for trying to enter Gaza during the 2005 withdrawal, and was treated in hospital for injuries sustained protesting during the 2006 evacuation of homes at the West Bank outpost of Amona.

"I won't lie," he admits, "of course it was exciting."

"I knew I was going to get into fights. There were kids who only wanted to do it for the excitement and the fun, but for me it came from a real ideology that was important to me."

Now he serves in the Israeli military at a base minutes away from outposts where he once fought off soldiers and police.

"In the army you meet everyone, rightists and leftists, and I have to try and influence from the inside. I have to show them that Hilltop Youth aren't just what you see on TV."

Some see in the Hilltop Youth an element of anti-establishment rebellion common among teenagers in many societies.

"It is a militant bohemianism," says Shlomo Fischer, a sociologist at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.

"Yes, they have nationalistic goals, but they also want to get away from bourgeois society, to get away from the system, from authority, from their parents, from school.

Evacuation of settlements in Gaza, 2005
Many right-wing Israelis felt betrayed by the Gaza pull-out

"They are ready to confront the Palestinians and Israeli security forces violently for some romantic bohemian ideal of authenticity."

Yet there are figures the Hilltop Youth respect, like right-wing activists Nadia Matar and Daniella Weiss.

"Each and every one of these kids are like my children," says Ms Matar, co-founder of Women in Green, a Zionist organisation. "It's an honour to be arrested for settling the land of Israel."

Ms Matar has been detained over a dozen times for protesting against the closure of outposts.

Mr Fischer describes her as "a revolutionary who uses these kids as her soldiers".

Yonatan was once one of these "soldiers".

And even now, when asked what he would do if the Israeli military demanded he help remove settlers from their hilltops outposts, his answer is immediate.

"I would give up my gun. I would refuse. I just can't evict a Jew from his house in the land of Israel."



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