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A boy with glasses on is seen about to hurl a stone toward the cameras. Other boys are around him.
Israeli settler boys throw stones during clashes with Palestinians in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

With Israel in turmoil, its ‘lost boys’ are helping stoke extreme right-wing nationalism

We saw it in the United States on Jan. 6, 2021. We witnessed it during Canada’s so-called Freedom Convoy. The evidence is clear —fascism is on the rise in North America. But ethno-nationalist fascism is growing even faster in the remote areas of occupied Palestine amid widespread protests in Israel about a contentious law that limits the Supreme Court’s ability to check governmental power.

How do these right-wing adherents become seduced by its messaging? For many, the answer lies in an Israeli movement that actively radicalizes boys and young men in its fight for an ethno-nationalist state of Israel.

This practice is inspired and associated with the Kahanist movement and the Kach party, both banned at various points by Israel and the United States for being terrorist groups.

Originally created by the late American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane (also the founder of the U.S. Jewish Defense League), this fundamentalist and extremist Jewish supremacy group calls for a full Jewish state in Israel and the expulsion and death of Arabs in the region.

Claiming Jewish teachings as justification, Kahanism fuels hate under a guise of piety.

Street kids

Often recruited from unstable homes and off the streets of Jerusalem, these boys — known as “hilltop youth” — typically range in age from their teens to 20s. Many of them have experienced traumatic home lives prior to joining these radical youth groups.

Deeply religious and spurred by a literal interpretation of the Torah, they have taken it upon themselves to create West Bank outposts that are deemed illegal by international law.

While the Israeli government has made promises to remove illegal outposts in these areas for over a decade, and even occasionally clears out the youth in the area, most illegal outposts carry on and eventually become settlements, complete with tacit government approval in the form of water, electricity and other utilities.

Beyond simply settling the West Bank, these young men frequently attack Palestinians and their villages, coined “pricetag attacks” that refer to the price they will make others pay for lost outposts.

These attacks, ranging from destroying buildings to murder, are seen as a commandment for these Jewish settlers to rid the land of anyone but Jewish inhabitants.

While these youth are most notorious for the 2015 murder of an 18-month-old baby in Duma and a subsequent celebration of the death, their presence has not abated.

Rather, the government has further legitimized their presence in the West Bank by setting up “rehabilitation” programs and homes.

A man in a white shirt and cap and long braids bows his head as he walks in a courthouse with a police office beside him. Both wear masks
An Israeli district court convicted Ben-Uliel Amiram in 2020 of murder in a 2015 arson attack that killed a Palestinian toddler and his parents. (Avshalom Sassoni/Pool Photo via AP)

Other youth brought to the West Bank

In addition to offering the young people in this area more infrastructure and supervision from adult settlers, the government also provides schooling. These schools serve the youth illegally occupying these areas, but other young people from other areas are brought to the West Bank to live and attend school in these outposts.

The “rehabilitation centres” therefore not only legitimize the presence of these outposts in the West Bank, but also allow them to proliferate through their success.

Yeshivas, schools for religious Jewish studies, are also present in these outposts. Most of these yeshivas are run by extremist rabbis who meld Jewish studies with hatred for Palestinians and encourage violence in the name of an all-Jewish state.

While the official policy of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is to dispel these youth and their outposts, in practice these groups have a much cozier relationship. They are working particularly closely with the officials in the new far-right government, several of whom have personal relationships with settlements in the West Bank, to retain the illegal occupation of the West Bank.

Most recently, these youth have been recruited for a special branch of the Israel Defense Forces called Desert Frontier, which patrols the West Bank and directly interacts with Palestinians living in the area.

'I love the Israeli Defence Force' (IDF) is marked in the dust of the rear window of a car
‘I love the IDF’ is marked in the dust of the rear window of a car near the Israel-Gaza border. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

Channelling hatred

This unit is also considered an opportunity for “rehabilitation” for these youth to channel their hatred and violence towards Palestinians in the area into military power and intelligence.

The unit also works in the Jordan Valley, helping other youth co-opt Palestinian pastureland for their own use. Though officials often publicly blame these young people for violence in the West Bank, in private they fund and encourage their presence in this area.

That means the Israeli government can blame settler violence on these young extremists and publicly condemn them, but it also benefits from their continued theft of Palestinian land and life.

Inspired by settlers and right-wing extremists before them, and seeking to find acceptance and community after harsh conditions in their home lives, the hilltop youth are using their right-wing ideology as a tool that allows them to harm Palestinians and their villages with no remorse.

While officially held up as a fringe extremist group, these youth are both funded and tacitly encouraged by a right-wing government seeking to expel all Palestinians from the land.

Larger strategy?

The national security minister himself — Itamar Ben-Gvir — is a settler with ties to youth in the West Bank, indicating the presence and radicalization of these young men is part of a larger strategy to conquer the land while feigning diplomacy.

A grey-haired man in glasses speaks to the media.
Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir talks to the media ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem in March 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo)

As more and more young men are brought to the region to attend these “rehabilitation centres” and then drafted into the army, Israel is preying on these traumatized youth to maintain strongholds in the West Bank.

Rather than receiving counselling and home placements, these boys are encouraged to use their fundamentalist teachings to support the army and government’s goal, no matter the personal toll.

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