Israeli army 'recruiting radical settlers' into new unit accused of abuse
Israel's army is recruiting radical settlers into a new military unit accused of abuses against Palestinians, a report published Wednesday has revealed.
The investigation by +972 and Local Call found that Israel's army began recruiting members of the extremist Hilltop Youth settler group to join the Desert Frontier unit in 2020.
The Hilltop Youth, a loose alliance of Jewish ultranationalist hardliners, are notorious for setting up wildcat outposts in the occupied West Bank. These settlements are in many cases retroactively legalised by the Israeli government.
The group has also called for ethnic cleansing and violence against Palestinians, including deadly attacks on villages, arson, and shootings.
The new Desert Frontier unit "consists mainly of Hilltop Youth … the extreme of the extreme, who otherwise would not have enlisted", an Israeli official told +972 on condition of anonymity. "This unit is very unique. We take them and turn them into soldiers," the unnamed source added.
Desert Frontier is made up of a few dozen settlers-turned-soldiers who are deployed in areas of the Judean Desert and the Jordan Valley, where their experience growing up on local settler outposts has made them a top choice for Israel's army.
Now incorporated into the army, their violence against Palestinians has become part of what appears to be a systematic campaign to intimidate Palestinians in areas intended for Israeli annexation.
The investigation documented at least 12 incidents bearing the same modus operandi, in which victims reported being robbed, blindfolded, stripped, and abandoned in areas of the desert with no mobile reception.
"I didn't know what to do," said one shepherd who was targeted by the unit. "I walked in the direction the jeep came from, guessing that maybe someone would be there. It was terrifying. After walking for two hours, I found a place with cell reception and called my brother."
Palestinians said they were unable to distinguish whether their attackers were soldiers or settlers. Desert Frontier soldiers have also been photographed accompanied by settlers, according to the report.
"At first I didn’t believe they were soldiers, I thought they were settlers dressed up as soldiers," said Jordan Valley farmer Ayman Ghraib. "Sometimes they come here, half soldiers and half civilians."
To prevent evidence from being taken, many victims had their phones confiscated and erased by the soldiers.
The constant threat of violence, however, has prevented many Palestinian victims from reporting the attacks out of fear of losing work permits and reprisals.
For Palestinians living under occupation, the Israeli army's co-opting of violent settlers into their ranks has further restricted their movement. It has effectively expelled many from the desert where the bands of settlers-turned-soldiers roam.
"We can’t easily travel outside Palestine or go to the sea, like you can," a Palestinian local told +972. "The desert is our only place of recreation without any checkpoints, the only place where we can breathe fresh air."