The Teenagers Pushing Israel to the Right

How one group of settlers became a potent political force—even though some are too young to vote

Trucks removing pre-fabricated homes drive along a road leading out of the recently evicted Israeli settler outpost of Amona.
Trucks removing pre-fabricated homes drive along a road leading out of the recently evicted Israeli settler outpost of Amona. (Baz Ratner / Reuters)

“Come as fast as you can,” wrote Yair Greenberg, 18, and his brother Yotam, 17, in a text message to their friends on February 1. The police had just arrived to evacuate Amona, the unauthorized settlement in the West Bank where the Greenbergs grew up, after the Israeli High Court ruled that it was built on private Palestinian land.

The call to protest—issued by many others at Amona that day—lit up cell phones across Israel and the West Bank settlements as word of the impending evacuation spread. Hundreds of Orthodox Jewish teenagers, mostly boys, poured into Amona, an outpost of about 300 people, climbing the shrubby hill in the wind and rain after police closed the roads.

Many of them had been to Amona in the weeks prior to support the embattled outpost—but also to carouse out of sight of their parents. One night in December when an evacuation seemed imminent (before the settlers reached a deal with the government that would ultimately fall apart), at least 1,000 teens flocked to Amona where they jumped up and down to techno music in an impromptu rave, side curls and ritual fringes bouncing in the frigid wind. Girls twirled in long skirts and winter coats behind a wooden partition erected for modesty’s sake. A few youngsters smoked weed.

By the time the final showdown took place six weeks later, the mood had turned desperate. Most of the protesters heeded the politicians’ calls to refrain from violence, barricading themselves inside Amona’s homes, linking arms and singing “Al Tira, Israel,” “Don’t Fear, Israel,” as they were yanked away. But others threw rocks, paint, bleach, and bottles at the police and paramilitary.

The evacuation culminated in a standoff at the Amona synagogue, where protesters fought the police off with tear gas, pepper spray, iron bars, and rocks, the police said. On the wall inside the synagogue, someone had drawn the police logo with a swastika and the phrase “Ishmael Police,” equating Israel’s police with the biblical figure who gave rise to the Arab nation, according to tradition. Other graffiti blamed “Zionists from hell” for the evacuation.

With the evacuation underway, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would build a settlement somewhere in the West Bank to house the families of Amona—the first new one in nearly 26 years. This followed announcements that Israel would build 5,500 housing units in the West Bank and another nearly 600 in East Jerusalem. Estimates place the overall settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem between 600,000 and 750,000.

In the past, such behavior would have drawn intense rebuke from the U.S. administration for undermining the two-state solution. But Donald Trump has broken with decades of American foreign policy by declaring that he views settlements as no obstacle to peace, although the White House recently warned that building new ones “may not be helpful.”

On Monday night, the Israeli parliament passed 60-52 a bill that would allow the government to declare private Palestinian lands where settlements had been built “in good faith or at the state’s instruction” as Israeli state property. Netanyahu had informed the White House that he would be putting the bill to a vote, and ignored a warning from British Prime Minister Theresa May that such a move would further isolate Israel around the world. The bill will almost certainly be challenged in the High Court.

Two days after the Amona evacuation, the Greenberg brothers, both in spectacles and knitted skullcaps, were sitting down for a lunch of schnitzel, cabbage, and rice in a cafeteria at Ofra, a nearby settlement now sheltering several of Amona’s 41 families. The brothers could have joined their family at their grandmother’s home in another settlement, but they preferred the company of their neighbors from Amona, choosing to sleep in bunk beds at the Ofra girls’ school. “It’s important to stay together,” said Yotam.

Yotam never expected the protest to reverse the evacuation, but he said it was important to register his complaint with the world that Jews were being uprooted from land that he believed God had granted them. Unlike those who painted the graffiti, he said he had nothing against the police who evacuated his family, seeing them as unwitting pawns of the government.

Teens had a unique voice in the fight to save Amona, he said. “We cannot vote, we cannot change things. The adults, most of the time they don’t listen to the teenagers, and here there is an opportunity.”

“We have the fire in ourselves to make change,” said Yair, using a Trumpism to describe the goal of the teen activism: “We want to make Israel great again.”

Even though the protest had ended, the youth support was still palpable. Outside the cafeteria, Ofra’s fences were hung with hand-painted signs welcoming the Amona evacuees. “Amona, with you the whole way,” said one, which was signed, “the Youth of Psagot [another settlement].” Another quoted the Book of Genesis: “‘For all the land which you see I will give to you.’ Love you. Hugs, the Youth of Ofra.”

Yotam said he was touched by the solidarity of his peers. “It doesn’t matter what will happen, these friends will always be with me.”

Amona’s teenagers weren’t yet born when their parents settled the hilltop outside Ramallah in 1995 on private Palestinian land, but they would become the outpost’s purists, more ideologically hardcore than the previous generation. For years the fate of the outpost was in limbo, as the government fought a 2006 High Court eviction order. In 2014, the High Court prevailed and ordered the outpost demolished in two years.

Last December, the teenagers were crestfallen when Amona’s leaders agreed to peacefully evacuate the settlement for a new West Bank site. When Amona’s elders relayed the news of the deal in a community meeting, the teenagers reportedly stormed out in anger. (The deal was later canceled when additional Palestinian claims to the relocation site were filed with the High Court.)

The disillusionment spread among Amona’s young supporters, fueling their protest. More loyal to the land than to institutions, these teen activists represent a potent and growing political force. Even though many of these activists are too young to vote, they shape Israeli politics, pulling it incrementally rightward with each highly publicized protest.

The seeds of the Amona protest were planted 12 years ago in Gush Katif, the Gaza Strip settlements evacuated by order of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. At the time, settler elders promised that God would prevent the Jewish state’s army from tearing them out of the biblical land of Israel, of which they considered Gaza a part. When that didn’t happen, young settlers lost faith in their parents and the Israeli state and military.

That rupture grew even wider when settler leaders from the Yesha Council, an umbrella organization of municipal settlement councils, frustrated a plan that would have seen tens of thousands of youngsters confronting soldiers on a march from Kfar Maimon outside the Gaza Strip into Gush Katif weeks before the evacuation.

From that point on, “the Yesha Council was no longer considered anymore the leadership of those youngsters,” said Yair Sheleg, a researcher of religious nationalism at the Israel Democracy Institute.

The Amona evacuation was nowhere near the scale of Gush Katif, where 8,600 settlers were uprooted, but it contained a similar motif: settlers disillusioned at the leaders who were supposed to protect them. As the evacuation drew near, Naftali Bennett, a champion of settlers in the Knesset, was issued a bodyguard because of threats from right-wing activists for his failure to save Amona.

The protesting teenage boys at Amona can be roughly categorized into two groups: those who live at home with their parents, attend yeshivas and plan to join the army, and, in much smaller numbers, those who wander, living outside the borders of conventional life.

In other parts of the world, wandering teens might find themselves experimenting with drugs or alcohol. In the West Bank, ideology is the substance of choice. Broadly speaking, these teens, often referred to as hilltop youth, see as hypocritical Israel’s self-identification as a Jewish and democratic state. The most extreme among them seek to sow chaos to bring down the democratic institutions and erect a Jewish monarchy in their place.

Some of these teens traffic in violence, committing so-called “price tag” attacks against Palestinian individuals and property as revenge for Palestinian attacks or Israeli government efforts to curb unauthorized Jewish building in the West Bank.

“The unaffiliated youngsters connected themselves to extreme ideology of the land and religion,” said Sheleg. “That gives them a feeling that they are not the worst part of the society but the best part of society.”

At sensitive times like the Amona evacuation, the two groups join together with adults in protest that is impossible for the politicians to ignore. Paradoxically, these protesters who rally against the government are also the government’s base. When they speak, Israel’s right-wing politicians, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, listen.

“The point is to say that there is a price to be paid for these kinds of actions,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. A violent confrontation between the army and the settlers “is something the government would like to avoid at all costs.”

Monday night’s vote seemed to bear out this observation, providing evidence that “determination pays,” as Bennett put it. The politician also tweeted out one word: “Revolution.”

Bennett was echoing a sentiment of which Israel’s “rave”-going settler teens are probably the best embodiment. Sitting in Ofra’s cafeteria, just a short walk downhill from their soon-to-be-demolished home in Amona, the Greenberg brothers conveyed a similar confidence.

“I think the fight for Amona is not finished,” said Yair, recalling the energy of the protest with excitement. “We will continue to fight to go back.”