Indeed, a growing number of radical settler factions have effectively split off from the settler mainstream in the wake of the disengagement and are no longer taking marching orders from the Yesha leadership. These are the fringe groups that create shocking headlines when, for example, they go out on rampages, burning down a mosque or cutting down Palestinian olive trees—incidents that are on the rise, according to B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. It doesn’t much matter that Dayan himself says this behavior is “terrible and flawed morally.” The “price tag” policy, so dubbed by settlers who have vowed to exact a price from Palestinians (by attacking them or destroying their property) every time Israeli soldiers attempt to dismantle so much as an illegal settlement outpost, has continued unchecked.
Although Dayan and the settlement leadership have not condemned such behavior, they have distanced themselves from it, further alienating the splinter groups. “I think the reaction of Yesha to the settlement freeze is too weak and inappropriately calm,” says Haetzni, 53, who moved to Kiryat Arba in 1973 with his parents; his father, Elyakim Haetzni, was a major activist in the post-1967 settlement movement and served in the Knesset. “We don’t like extremism, but when the situation is extreme, a moderate response is madness.”
The younger Haetzni is one of the leaders of a settler group called Homesh First, which has been sending young activists to Homesh, one of four small West Bank settlements that were evacuated along with all of those in Gaza in 2005. Some young settlers have succeeded in returning, living in caves and wooden shacks. During the day there is a small yeshiva functioning there, Haetzni says. The army has tried to remove them, but has more or less relented.
Another sharp Yesha critic is Daniella Weiss, the mayor of the Kedumim settlement. Although it’s not far from Maale Shomron as the crow flies, it is quite a distance, ideologically speaking. Weiss, a firebrand figure in the settlement movement for decades, has a renewed following among young people disenchanted with the establishment—and delighted with the thought of taking over an uninhabited hilltop just as Zionists did in the 1930s. They call themselves Neemanei Eretz Yisrael—those loyal to the Land of Israel. Their handiwork may look to the rest of the world like a naked land grab—the settlement watch project of Peace Now has documented the existence of nearly 100 outposts outside of the 121 recognized settlements in the West Bank, some bearing no more of an official name than “Hilltop 836”—but many settlers see Weiss’s foot soldiers, who sometimes live without basic amenities such as running water, as a rare example of Israel’s waning pioneer spirit.
“The only thing that matters now and that is worth talking about is building new outposts,” Weiss says. “The most important thing today is to initiate new outposts all over Judea and Samaria.” She, too, says Yesha has become irrelevant. “The Yesha Council lost their right to be the head of the communities of Judea and Samaria after the destruction of the Gaza settlements. They haven’t regained their credibility, and I don’t think they ever will.”
The willingness of Weiss and others to flaunt the law is a symptom of a larger problem. “The settler ideology is fractured now,” says Gershom Gorenberg. “There’s a dissonance, and either you pretend it isn’t there, or you decide which side of it you’re on. For people on one side, any means are kosher,” he says, adding, “Dayan is a leader who doesn’t know if he should disavow the radicals or not, because he needs their support.”