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Will Israel declare war on violent settlers?

The Israeli Defense Forces are increasingly confronting a truth that many Palestinians learned awhile ago: A not-insignificant number of the Israelis who have settled on the West Bank are unhinged zealots who, in their self-righteousness, myopia and contempt for those with whom they disagree, comprise a kind of Jewish Hamas.

The Israeli army deploys a great deal of manpower to protect settlers from Arab terrorism. There is no conceivable way the settlers would be alive today without the protection of Israel's soldiers, many of whom object to settlements but are doing their duty.

Yet the army has now become a target of a violent band of settlers called the Hilltop Youth. These "youth," many in their 20s and even 30s by now (and guided by rabbis in their 70s and 80s), are the offspring of the first and second generation of religious settlers. They reject what they see as their parents' bourgeois lifestyle and despise the government in Jerusalem to which their parents are more or less loyal.

The Hilltop Youth became a source of great anguish in Israel this week after a gang of 50 settlers stormed an army base adjacent to the Kedumim settlement in the northern West Bank and threw rocks at both soldiers and Palestinians. The commander of the army's Ephraim Brigade was struck in the head with a rock.

Violent bands of settlers have been throwing rocks at Palestinians, and on occasion defacing their mosques and ripping up their olive trees, for some time. These are known as "price tag" attacks, meant to scare the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu out of making concessions on settlements. (Every demolition of an unauthorized "hilltop" settlement comes with a price, in other words.)

Many Israelis have been aghast at the notion of Jews behaving like Cossacks, but many others were blithely unaware of these attacks, when they were launched against Arabs. Now, there should be no ignoring these berserkers. The army is sacrosanct in Israel; it is a citizens' army. An attack on the army is an attack on the state itself.

I know many of these Hilltop Youth well; some are degenerate pot smokers, but others are focused and fanatical. Israel has the ability to smother this movement, if it chooses. There are a finite number of hyperviolent settlers -- hundreds at the core of the movement, and perhaps a few thousand fellow travelers. During the first Palestinian uprising, the army showed an enormous capacity to collect and warehouse Palestinian rock-throwers and mayhem-makers. It could do the same now with these settler gangs. And I know just the place to warehouse them.

More than 20 years ago, as a young draftee in the Israeli army, I was assigned briefly to serve as a military policeman at Israel's largest prison camp, a place called Ketziot, in the Negev desert, by the Egyptian border. It was an unhappy assignment, for a number of reasons, including the heat, the isolation and the fact that I was opposed to the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But I learned a great deal in Ketziot about Palestinian nationalism, about the desert and about the Israeli army's organizational capabilities. The prison -- an open-air tent camp, actually -- held, at any given moment, 6,000 Palestinians, serving sentences from two months to several years.

Ketziot was no picnic; it was overcrowded and occasionally violent, but the prisoners were often left to their own devices. There was a tacit ceasefire between the Israeli authorities and members of the Palestine Liberation Organization inside the prison that allowed the Palestinians to manage their own affairs (a metaphor for the Oslo peace process, in retrospect), and the army provided the prisoners with basic health care, hot showers and adequate food.

Kosher food, actually -- the Israeli army is a kosher army -- and this fact, among others, makes Ketziot ready-made to accept violent settlers who need to be taught that their society will no longer abide their hooliganism.

The Netanyahu government has said it will take a few new legal measures in response to these incidents, including holding settlers under administrative detention laws and trying them in military courts. But so far it seems only modestly outraged. It doesn't seem to grasp that it is only a matter of time before the price-tag campaign escalates.

These fanatics represent a perverse branch of Zionism. There is a war in Israel between Jews who believe that Zionism is a movement seeking Jewish national equality, and those who believe that Zionism is about the redemption of the lands of the Bible -- all the lands of the Bible, ideally -- in the name of God. This maximalist view, which would be alien to Zionism's founders, is a catastrophe for Israel, Jews and Judaism.

If the Netanyahu government were to announce that it was repurposing Ketziot to accept violent settlers, and that settlers who attack a soldier -- or uproot an olive tree, or burn down a mosque -- would be buying themselves a long-term stay in an unforgiving prison, it would send a clear message. And it would show the world that the Israeli government, and not a collection of racist and extremist rabbis, makes Israeli policy.

There is one other advantage to this plan. The Negev desert is a depopulated place. And Ketziot is near the spot where Moses and the Children of Israel camped during the exodus from Egypt. It is holy soil, and it could use a good Jewish settlement or two.

Jeffrey Goldberg
Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.