Israel has a terrorism problem and it is not Palestinian terrorism, a term that the country’s propaganda machine, the “hasbara” – Hebrew for explanation – has been using for decades to describe any form of resistance against the illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s problem has to do with Jewish terrorism preached and adopted by ultranationalist and ultra-religious Jews whose end-game goes as far as killing as many Palestinians as possible in a bid to expel them from their native land – the term once coined by the notorious fanatic and racist rabbi-politician Meir Kahana was “transfer,” which includes expelling Israel’s Palestinian minority.
For decades any attempt to negate the hasbara’s narrative and talk about Israeli state terrorism in the form of collective punishments, use of banned weapons against civilian population, and arbitrary killings of activists or even innocent bystanders was shot down; the risk being that one could be labeled as antisemitic. But that is now changing. It is top Israeli officials who have come out recently to warn their leaders of the impending danger of Jewish terrorism.
On Sunday, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the rise of “Jewish terrorism,” while former Defense Minister Benny Gantz slammed the phenomenon of “dangerous Jewish nationalist terrorism.” Both were reacting to the cold-blooded murder of a 19-year-old Palestinian boy by rampaging Jewish settlers in the village of Burqa on Friday. In a rare rebuke, the US State Department condemned the incident as “terrorism by suspected Jewish settlers.”
Compounding the problem for Israel is the fact that a number of Netanyahu’s coalition partners actually support terrorist settlers. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said the settlers suspected of the murder of the Palestinian youth deserve praise, describing them as “heroes.” Jewish terrorism, once a taboo subject, is now open for public discussion. The crimes of Jewish terrorists are inseparable from the history of Israel even before the birth of the state. One of the earliest instances of Jewish terrorism in Palestine was the formation of the Jewish Defense Party (HaShomer) in 1909, which carried out attacks on Arab villages. But it was in British Mandate Palestine that organized and well-financed Jewish terror groups were formed. In the 1930s, as tensions between Jewish immigrants and Palestinians escalated, several Jewish underground organizations emerged. These sought to counter Arab attacks and British restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases. The most notable was the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), commonly referred to as the Irgun, and the Stern Gang (also known as Lehi, short for Lohamei Herut Yisrael). Both groups employed terrorism as a means to achieve their political goals.
The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, who later founded the Likud Party and became prime minister in the 1970s, carried out numerous attacks against Arab civilians and British authorities. Their most infamous act was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, which housed the British Mandate administration and resulted in many civilian casualties. While all these groups, including the Haganah, were later disbanded and merged into the Israeli army, the ultranationalists and ultra-religious groups continued to be part of the country’s political setting. It was after the 1967 war and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that these organizations began to play a more active role in Israeli politics, with one major goal: building Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, with the final aim of annexing all the territories into ‘Greater Israel.’
As successive Israeli governments opened the newly conquered Palestinian territories for illegal settlers – most were fresh immigrants from the US and, later, from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union – the ultranationalist and ultra-religious groups began to expand their political base in a country that was supposed to be secular, progressive and democratic. Right-wing governments, most led by Netanyahu, opened the floodgates of Jewish immigration, with the majority housed in new illegal settlements. From 2012 to 2022, the population of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, grew from 520,000 to more than 700,000.
It is in these illegal settlements that the seeds of a vigorous wave of Jewish extremism, quickly morphing into terrorism, were planted. The settlement movement, driven by religious, ideological and security motivations, gained momentum over the years, leading to the establishment of numerous settler organizations and groups. These settlers often advocate for the expansion of Israeli settlements into Palestinian territories, viewing it as an essential part of Jewish identity and fulfilling biblical prophecies, believing that they have a divine mandate to establish Jewish sovereignty over all of historic Palestine. Motivated by a toxic mixture of racism and radical religious beliefs, extremist settlers began carrying out violent attacks against Palestinians, including assaults on individuals, homes, crops and places of worship. The most horrific was the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in February 1994, which was also the 15th day of Ramadan, when Baruch Goldstein, a Zionist extremist from the far-right Kach movement opened fire on praying Muslims with an automatic weapon, killing 29 and injuring about 150 others.
The current far-right government has empowered these terrorist/settler groups and the fiery rhetoric by the likes of Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is normalizing and glorifying Jewish terrorists in the Occupied Territories. The most militant of these groups are Hilltop Youth, Price Tag Attacks, Lehava, Jewish Underground, Kach and Kahane Chai; the latter is considered a terrorist organization by the US and Israel. All of these settler groups openly advocate violence against the Palestinians. While Israel’s dilemma with Jewish terrorism will not go away so long as the occupation and settlement building continues, the real problem lies elsewhere. It is in the backing and support that these terrorist and radical groups receive from one particular, but influential, group of US voters and politicians: evangelical Christians. Although not all evangelical Christians hold the same views, most believe in the biblical significance of Israel as a fulfillment of the prophecy and evidence of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with the Jewish people.
Some evangelical Christians believe that the existence and flourishing of Israel are linked to their interpretation of end-times prophecies. They see Israel as a necessary precursor to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan. And they openly advocate policies that align with Israeli interests, such as recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and opposing international efforts to pressure Israel on issues such as illegal settlements and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by ending occupation. While Israel today recognizes that it has a serious Jewish terrorism problem, it will be difficult for US politicians to renounce crimes committed against Palestinians for fear of losing the evangelical and Jewish votes. This will only empower the Jewish terrorists more, and although Palestinians will suffer, as they have always done, the fractures that will hit Israel’s foundations as a result of the growing militancy of the settler groups will be unprecedented.