Benjamin Netanyahu
© The Associated PressIsrael Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Protesting Eviction Plan, Vigilante Groups Vandalize Military Base, Stone Cars; Government Criticized for Light Response

Vigilante groups associated with radical Israeli settlers mounted separate marauding assaults against Israeli army and Palestinian targets early Tuesday, an effort largely aimed at pressuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel the evacuation of outpost settlements.

Within the span of a few hours late Monday and early Tuesday, detachments of far-right vigilantes infiltrated and vandalized an Israel Defense Forces base in the West Bank, squatted in a building in a no-man's land on the Jordanian border and pelted Palestinian cars with rocks.

The attacks targeted an IDF regional commander and left three Palestinians lightly wounded. But they were the broadest yet in two years of sporadic attacks mounted by radical settlers who believe in actively resisting government efforts to evacuate any Jewish presence in the biblical land of Israel.

Israel's government faces an order from the country's Supreme Court to evacuate at least one settler outpost built on Palestinian property by March.

Tuesday's violence was sponsored by fundamentalists known as "hilltop youth," according to an unnamed activist cited on the Jewish Voice, a website that promotes radical settlers' views.

The incidents triggered outrage in Israel. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that the strikes resembled "homegrown terror.'' Prime Minister Netanyahu called the violence part of "something small that could become a big plague" and promised aggressive action. Mainstream settler leaders and rabbis also harshly condemned of the incidents.

But the incidents also resulted in only a handful of arrests, a point some Israeli security experts took as suggesting that Israel's government and security forces are reluctant to rein in a campaign aimed at deterring Mr. Netanyahu from making concessions in the West Bank and Jerusalem. These people said the settlers' violent methods deter political leaders and security commanders from clashing with them.The head of Israel's central command, Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrachi, said he had never in his career witnessed such hatred by Jews toward the army.Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said the government hasn't done enough to counter the campaign and predicted a civil war.

The vigilante campaign, nicknamed Price Tag, has surged in frequency over the past two years, targeting primarily Palestinian villagers and mosques, but also Israeli security forces.

The Jewish Voice website said the overnight attacks against the army and the Palestinians were meant to divert the military's attention from the expected dismantling of several unauthorized settler encampments near the Palestinian city of Nablus. The region is home to a group of hard-line settlers who believe in actively resisting government eviction efforts and launching attacks on Palestinians. Roadsigns are spray-painted with the Hebrew word "revenge." Arabic words are blotted out.

Security forces estimated that about 50 rioters infiltrated a regional army headquarters near the city of Qalqilya. Once inside the base, they threw stones at vehicles, burned tires and sprayed graffiti. On the highways nearby, settler groups stoned the vehicles of the regional commander as well as Palestinian motorists.

The Jewish Voice report boasted that the attacks helped to avert outpost evictions. "Shifting the struggle to [army] bases symbolizes the understanding of the settlers that actions of the IDF are immoral and illegitimate," settler activist Yehoshua Hess said in an interview published on the site.

Dozens of miles away, several dozen far-right activists cut the military's border fence and occupied an abandoned building beyond it, in a security zone on Israeli side of border with Jordan.

The activists were protesting pressure on Mr. Netanyahu by Jordanians, who are asking Israel not to renovate the Mughrabi bridge, a wooden ramp on scaffolding that is the only way for non-Muslims to access the Temple Mount. The Jordanians and other Arab neighbors believe renovating the bridge would stoke regional unrest by fanning speculation that Israel plans to undermine Muslim holy sites there.

The apparent lack of a crackdown on the vigilantes reflects a reluctance by the military and the police to anger the settlers' powerful political lobby in the government, security experts said. "The settlers by and large are those who set the policy, not anyone else,'' said Amos Harel, a columnist for the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "No politician in his right mind would look for a confrontation if he has another choice."

Many in Israeli society say government efforts to tamp down on radicals - which have included restraining orders barring some settlers from the West Bank, and a withdrawal of goverment funding from a yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar for allegedly preaching violence - is insufficient.

"The sense is that they are operating in a region where there is no deterrence,'' said Asaf Hefetz, a former chief of Israel's national police force. "[Settlers] have a freedom of operation."

Palestinians, on the other hand, view the settler radicals as the long arm of the Israeli government. They complain that Israel's army leaves them exposed to vigilante attacks aimed at terrorizing villages near the outposts.

In Asira al Qiblya, a Palestinian village of 3,000 people located just down the hill from an outpost belonging to the settlement of Yitzhar, Palestinians said that masked settlers stoned houses and smashed windows twice in the past week.

A recent report of the United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said settler violence against Palestinians surged in the last two years. OCHA counted 377 incidents of settler attacks against Palestinians in the first 10 months of 2011, up from 132 in 2009.

"The settlers must not use Palestinian property as a way to convey messages against the evacuating the outposts,'' said Zakaria Sadda, a Palestinian field worker for Israeli group Rabbis for Human Rights. "The government of Israel must find a way to stop it.''