JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Young Jewish settlers behind attacks on Palestinian mosques have shaken Israel by turning violent against its most revered institution, the conscript military.
The zealots' escalation from anti-Arab vandalism and arson to a rampage at an Israeli garrison in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday triggered concern for the future of an ideologically driven society that sees its armed forces as a bulwark of unity.
"The red lines have been crossed," was Mari tabloid's main headline on Wednesday. An officer slightly hurt by rocks was quoted as saying his assailants had called him a Nazi, trashing a taboo in their fury at Israel's occasional crackdowns on settlements built without government authorisation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to step up enforcement and "stop the bad things while they are minor". But a top military commander told Reuters that hostility to state authority was "unfortunately not an aberration" among settlers.
"We have to deal with this with all means now, because these people are part of us, the Jewish people, and we'd best find a way to remain a democracy," he said on condition of anonymity.
Security sources said the radical settlers, frequently known as the "Hilltop Youth" for their rogue outpost-building and pioneer rhetoric, number several hundred but enjoy wider, tacit support among the 300,000 Israelis living in the West Bank.
Palestinians see all settlers as interlopers on land they want for a state and have long complained they are the source of harassment that is largely ignored by Israeli authorities.
The first settlers were viewed by many compatriots as a patriotic vanguard on territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war. But some of their offspring, in the thrall of messianic and supremacist rabbis, combined an ecstatic skullcaps-and-sandals piety with the spurning of secular Israeli rule.
"The rosy-faced stinkweed of the settlement movement," was how columnist Bradley Burston described the zealots, arguing in the liberal Haaretz daily that they enjoyed de facto impunity.
Other commentators echoed the charge, linking the limited round-ups of suspects and generally toothless punishments, like restraining orders, meted out to offenders to the preponderance of pro-settler parties in Netanyahu's conservative coalition.
"This criminal behavior must be rooted out, and everyone knows where the roots are: they are in the incitement of the settler rabbis, the Israeli governments that over and over again approved the settlers' illegal acts, the leniency of the judges and the powerlessness of the (security services)," wrote Nahum Barnea in the biggest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
High birthrates among religious Jews look likely to perpetuate Israel's rightist tack and its grip on the biblical West Bank, where the settlements are viewed by almost all world powers as unlawful and an impediment to Palestinian statehood.
One settlement leader, Shaul Goldstein, said the radicals were marginal, contrasting their behaviour with his community's record of volunteering for the military's top combat units.
Some zealots are exempted from conscription because they have police records or are designated as psychologically unfit. But three soldiers were arrested last week on suspicion of involvement in pro-settler vandalism and arson.
"Every society has its at-risk youths, its estranged youths," he said, but added that West Bank settlers, many of them armed, often come under Palestinian attack.
"The environment is more threatening, and there are a lot of weapons around," Goldstein said, adding that some youths also turn radical because they think their parents are not sufficiently committed to settler interests.
Those suffered a big blow in 2005, when Israel quit the Gaza Strip, shattering some rabbis' predictions of an eternal Jewish dominion there and giving ground to enemy Palestinian Islamists.
"I have no doubt the Gaza disengagement caused much of the current crisis," said Menachem Landow, a retired Shin Bet domestic intelligence officer who monitored settlers and is himself an Orthodox Jew.
Israel evacuated some 8,000 settlers from Gaza amid rightwing protests. West Bank outposts now house around 10,000 people, Goldstein estimated, predicting that many would be authorised retroactively in negotiations with the government.
Attempts to demolish unauthorised outposts have been resisted by radicals who scuffle with troops or carry out night-time sabotage against military garrisons to inflict what they call the "price tag" for "selling out" the settlements.
Hoping to provoke Arab reprisals that would divert the soldiers, some zealots have also desecrated mosques and Muslim cemeteries and destroyed Palestinian olive trees and cars.
"These things both endanger human life and distract from the Israel Defence Forces' main mission," Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Army Radio on Wednesday. "And they threaten the very sensitive fabric of our relations with our neighbours."
"In terms of their conduct, there is no doubt that this is the conduct of terrorists: terrorism, albeit Jewish."
Writing by Dan Williams