Hilltop Youth: Political-Anthropological Research in the Hills of Judea and Samaria

Shimi Friedman. Israel Affairs. Volume 21, Issue 3. 2015.

This paper focuses upon the significance of the hilltop youth phenomenon as it developed in the wilderness expanse of Judea and Samaria. This area may be viewed as a frontier, conceptually distinct from a border region. Whereas borders are politically defined, the frontier region is seen as empty space, vague, shapeless, and thus devoid of identity markers. This perception is a technical creation. According to Benvenisti, this social construction of space enables future alteration and control of the characterized space.

The Heterotopia model, which Foucault suggests for examining and analyzing space, can assist us in understanding why a Topos remains undefined while at the same time people who live there grant it a range of meanings. To enrich the analysis, I suggest that the frontier regions of Judea and Samaria take on a liminal character which makes it possible for groups containing diverse identities to meet and form a heterotopia in which shared ideas can co-exist. However, it is also a space of tension that collects marginal personas making divergent ideological claims. Those who succeed in imposing their ideology have a critical role in defining the dominant image of the Judea–Samarian frontier. These conceptual and sometimes opposing topoi enable this study to arrive at an understanding of the sociological meanings of the Judea and Samarian hilltop phenomenon.

A theoretical discussion on the phenomenon of the hilltop youth through a resort to a short ethnography will demonstrate the claims raised below. It will show how this group has designed an ideological and practical-cultural system, which constitutes, in part, a rite of passage for its members. This system also influences the religious-Zionist community in which the hilltop youth were nurtured. Above and beyond the political activism of the teenagers, however, the time they spend in the hills exemplifies how spontaneous and often illegal gatherings can become informal institutions of rehabilitation for drop-out youth and fertile ground for creation of an anti-subculture. By using the space of the hilltops, the youth create a world of ideas for both themselves and the local religious-Zionist communities.

How Did the Hilltop Youth Emerge?

In the post-Six Day War era, one can identify several turning points in the history of Jewish settlement as indicators of the emergence of a new social group. Already in the late 1980s, with the eruption of the ‘First Intifada’, the settlers found themselves in a violent and prolonged conflict with their neighbours and made great efforts to present themselves as standing steadfast in the face of recurrent terrorist attacks. From the 1990s onward, in the wake of the Baruch Goldstein Massacre in Hebron (1994), as well as the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1995) by a youth associated with religious Zionism, the settlers, in general, were perceived as a violent and extreme group.

The first decade of the new century opened with the October 2000 riots. Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and the opening of the Western Wall tunnel once more inflamed the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and brought about the eruption of the ‘Second Intifada’. In the summer of 2005, Gush Emunim, the major movement behind settlement in the territories acquired in the Six Day War, suffered a severe setback when the Israeli government put into effect its plan of disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Twenty-two settlements were uprooted and their occupants evacuated. There was a feeling that the settlement enterprise was nearing its end.

During this same period, ideational rifts emerged among the settlers and confidence about the values underlying the settlement enterprise became undermined. The ideological space was quickly filled by a new group of settlers who marched to a different tune. Tagged by the press as the ‘hilltop youth’, it comprised young families, along with other single people who established illegal settlements in outposts on hills near existing settlements and presented itself as a strong, anti-establishment group acting in opposition to the decisions of the state, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the police.

On the margins of Gush Emunim, it is possible today, more than in the past, to find extremist groups that have found their place in various settlements and have even established illegal outposts. Apart from the fundamentalist ‘Kach’ movement, which was outlawed years ago, a new kind of religiosity has appeared that expresses itself as the ‘new settler’ who finds his or her spiritual place in the ‘wilderness’ of Judea and Samaria. These groups believe that ‘forcing the end [of days]’ through human agency will bring about redemption from above. Implementing this belief was fertile ground for the development of an extreme model of action which encouraged chaos, crisis and military confrontation with the neighbouring Arabs.

One example of this settler type appeared in the mid-1990s in the isolated areas of the South Hebron Hills. Settlers of the Ma’on outpost adopted a different set of clothing from the attire they had worn previously and displayed an aggressive and violent approach vis-à-vis the media. Many teenagers aligned themselves with religious orientations which radicalized the political and social beliefs of the residents of the South Hebron Hills both with regard to the Arabs, and towards the State of Israel. During the past few years more research has been conducted on these fringe groups, which represent a threat to the settler community on the socio-political level, because of their negative influence on young people, as well as to broader Israeli society by their fanning the flames of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Aside from the work of two researchers, briefly reviewed below, there has been no scientific study of the hilltop youth. Anthropological research, for example, could greatly contribute to a better understanding of the new social order in the settlements in general and the hilltop youth in particular. In his pilot study of the hilltop outposts in Samaria, Kaniel claims that the young settlers, who are usually the sons and daughters of the settlement founders, develop different, more extreme, patterns of behaviour than those of their parents or teachers. Religious fundamentalism and partial or total rejection of state institutions on the part of the hilltop settlers, he claims, are a result of the seclusion created by the parents during the period in which the settlements were founded. This isolation led the young settlers to develop feelings of intellectual independence and a different, more radical identity from that of the previous generation. According to Feige, both settlement and hilltop youth consider their presence in that space as self-evident—an outlook which was not necessarily true of their parents’ generation.

By way of contrast, this study describes the characteristics of the ‘new settlers’. Many of the hilltop youth are not the children of the original settlers; moreover, they never upheld the conventional settlement ideology before their arrival in the frontier settlement areas. It seems, then, that the culture of the hilltop youth has developed out of the encounter that takes place between these youth and those hosting them. Aside from characterizing the hilltop youth as an entirely new settlement model, there is the question of how this group of marginal youth emerged from Gush Emunim—the movement first responsible for the creation of the settlements—and how the members of the religious Zionist movement perceived these youth and their behaviour. Beyond their lack of adherence to the normative social frameworks that typify the settlers’ movement, how do these teenagers express their objection to the founders of this settlement movement? What is the design model presented by the young people living on the fringes of settlements and their orientation to the Arab population living in the same space? In order to gain a better understanding of the world of these adolescents, we must deconstruct the social category ‘adolescence’.

Adolescence and Adolescents in the Religious Zionist Community

Adolescents have always aroused the curiosity of the general population and specifically scholars of education and society. The perception that they experience embarrassment and confusion yet also empowerment at this stage of life has stimulated studies which seek means of finding the best ways to deal with these life-stage phenomena. Identity formation is one lens through which guidance and direction in preparing for an adult role is filtered. Adolescents struggle with the conflict between the power of nature which impels them to grow and the power of a culture that exerts pressure on them to accept conventional forms of behaviour and norms. According to Muuss, adolescents need to answer different questions about themselves such as: where they came from, who they are, and what they want to become. This is a process of searching whose results are not obvious and whose solutions are not always provided by society. Turner looks at the issue of one’s transition from childhood to adulthood, describing this process as liminal—a period during which society demands that adolescents come to terms with evolutionary developments and even creates ceremonial frameworks that allow them to do so. In certain societies, adults try to make the complex transition from childhood to adulthood easier through initiation rites whose purpose is to assist the adolescent in the construction of his or her renewed identity. In times of social change, the adolescent’s search is made much more difficult since the social anchor, which is meant to assist the adolescent in the search for his/her identity, is less stable and may leave the youth, who is on a journey towards maturity, bereft of the support and comfort of the clear social models provided by the previous generation, models which might have guided him/her in the search for a personal identity.

Maturation of adolescents should be examined both at the micro level, in the context of identity building, and at the macro level, relating to the adolescents as active participants in a large social system. At the micro level the question is: how do the experiences of the individual, whether felt as failures or successes, become motives for rebellion and/or change from the identity society expects? Within the broader social context, the question arises as to how these experiences impact on the participation of teenagers in the social processes taking place around them. Both sociological and anthropological studies view adolescents as socially active members in their societies and focus on their actions in the building of the society’s identity and ideology.

One of the internal struggles that religious Zionist society confronts is the compatibility between the acceptance of modernity and the adherence to a religious lifestyle. As an historical movement, religious Zionism promoted an orientation of connection, rather than schism, between the religious and secular worlds, between following tradition and being open to the ‘outside’, between adopting modern principles and integrating them into a spiritual world which is always responding to current changes caused by modernity. For religious adolescents, secular practices have become part of their socio-cultural life. Cultural norms that are seen by the religious community as ‘non-kosher’ or unacceptable to their beliefs and lifestyle, such as frequenting pubs, and mixed gender dancing or swimming, have today become part of a legitimate life routine. The exposure of young people to different varieties of nightlife, for example, might encourage them to seek out new experiences. These experiences can often be more extreme than earlier ones which usually take place during the stage when adolescents first put their feelers out. These are attempts ‘to become somebody’, while a cultural-social struggle between them and their surrounding society is taking place in the background. Youth, in general, try out different lifestyles, sometimes through rebellious behaviour—which is not necessarily social deviation or negative in other respects, such as rejection of authority. It could be positive, involving the need for autonomy and significance.

In the process of constructing their social ideas young people act as participants in the negotiations with the older generation concerning the form society should take. In the youths’ encounter with the world of the traditional content that their parents wish to instil in them they come up against the conflict between the desire for modernization and traditionalism. In this way, the young people are exposed to conflicting messages and these messages need to be re-examined in the process of forming both their own identities and that of society as a whole. Kahane argues that the search for meaning that is typical of the postmodernist era is an expression of the values of freedom, autonomy and spontaneity. He describes global, informal, cultural patterns and, despite their being free from formalization, the ability of youth to assist in the construction of meaningfulness in their worlds. Apart from the question of whether it is possible to see adolescents as social agents, and not only as passive individuals who respond to the social construction that has been instilled in them, one also has to discuss the question of whether, and to what extent, society as a whole views young people as capable of bringing about change.

Flower Children, Sebastia Youth, and Hilltop Youth

The assumption that youth is not merely a category of age but also a social agent enables us to examine social phenomena and phenomena of rebellion that develop within a specific society. In order to illustrate instances of youthful rebellion setting social processes in motion, it is helpful to resort to the term ‘generation’ developed by Mannheim. In refining his use of the notion of a generation, Mannheim resorts to the concept of a ‘generational unit’ to which he attributes historical significance, especially through its involvement in events that fashion the consciousness of the people who take part in them. Often, a cohesive young generational unit will question society’s norms. Eisenstadt suggests that ‘spontaneous youth groups’ which are dissociated from their institutional settings developed ‘a somewhat subversive youth culture’. For Mannheim, the generational unit crystallizes around a core group, the generation’s elite, that succeeds in giving birth to new ideas and perceptions. The group motivates, and acts as a model of behaviour for all of society. The generational unit, according to Mannheim, is not biological but phenomenological, which means that it is a subgroup that is different from its peer generation because of the experiences that are only unique to it. Lomsky-Feder and Ben-Ze’ev have demonstrated in their work how two such generational units fashioned a ‘canonical generation’ for society in different periods of time. They carried out a comparative study involving men that took part in Israel’s War of Independence (1948) and men who took part in the Yom Kippur War (1973) and showed how the experiences of the surviving fighters fashioned a state of mind in the people of the same generation.

Generational units such as the aforementioned have been identified and studied in several social revolutions in history. Two examples bear comparison with the case of the hilltop youth. In the mid-1960s in the United States, young people revived the musical styles of rock and roll and the blues which had faded toward the end of the 1950s and pushed them front-stage, thus creating a new cultural system which embodied forms of social protest. The hippy generation, also called the ‘flower children’ generation, swept the civilian population along with it to form a social movement against the war in Vietnam, against the culture of capitalism and against social repression of class, race and gender. It was a generation that sought ‘to give peace a chance’, regarded ‘small as beautiful’ and fought for civil rights. Those who researched the period illustrated the phenomenon of the social mobility of the youth using terms such as ‘crisis’, ‘social unrest’ and a process of ‘changing values’. During those years, groups of young people waved the ‘anti’ banner and even offered an ‘alternative culture’ to capitalism for the American society of that period by adopting an egalitarian lifestyle through the free provision of basic goods such as food and clothing to a community of friends.

In the Israeli socio-historical context, the pioneering ‘Sabra’ youth also adopted a new social model. Distancing themselves from any signs of religion, they felt it necessary to blur or eradicate the image of the Diaspora Jew and thus uphold Jewish honour in the face of the persecutions Jews had experienced in the past. In this way they presented a new social approach for the Jews who lived in Israel during the years when sovereignty was being re-established. The ‘Sabra’ was a man who performed manual work, mainly in agriculture; he was ready for battle, self-confident and had none of the feelings of inferiority or fear of the gentiles that were perceived as being characteristic of the Diaspora Jew. Kaniel depicted a new ‘Sabra’ image: the biblical Sabra who settled hilltops. According to Kaniel one can see him as akin to the secular Sabra, since the biblical Sabra and the veteran secular Sabra share similar authentic characteristics—e.g. occupying locations distant from the centre of the country, exhibiting a love for their country, and perceiving the neighbouring Arabs as cruel and wicked enemies. The secular Sabra established settlements in the centre of Israel and defended them from the threats of their neighbours while the biblical Sabra returned to nature as described in Genesis, to the landscape of Judea and Samaria. ‘Gush Emunim’ a movement which repeatedly tried to sweep society along with it to the hills of Sebastia and the rest of Samaria, based itself upon highly motivated young people whose vision was to change Israeli society. These youth were discharged soldiers or pre-army inductees, attending the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, who sought to remake the map of society and the state by settling the hilltops.

The particular case at hand describes how a group of young fundamentalists, in the period of post-modernism, adopted patterns of behaviour from earlier periods—those of the hippy generation and the Gush Emunim youth who established the settlement in Sebastia. Like the hippy generation they transgressed boundaries and like the youth of Sebastia they emphasized the biblical connection to the space they occupied.

The first hilltop youth, who occupied land south of Mount Hebron in the first decade of this century, exhibited spiritual affinities and ties to nature. In this particular case, one may argue that this venture had affinities with earlier social models from the history of counter-cultures such as those that appeared in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, in France during the student revolution at the end of the 1960s, and in England during the period of punk. These movements demonstratively expressed anti-consumerism, anti-materialism, anti-nationalism and anti-religion while expressing anarchist sentiment, naturalism and spirituality. However, research shows that the hilltop youth are far from developing an ideological, spiritual construct. While they do protest against the founding generation and their approach to settlement, they are not against the world of materialism and capitalism. The hilltop youth are interesting for the double message they express—on the one hand of protest and, on the other hand, conformity with the earlier generation of settlers. They manage to combine these antithetical outlooks through praxis of extremism which did not characterize the earlier settler generation.

The term ‘youth subculture’ was already used in the middle of the last century when the sociologist Parsons showed how young people postpone accepting responsibility from adults and wish to enjoy themselves and exploit the pleasures of life. Most of the studies since then that deal with the lifestyle of young people as subculture have focused on groups of lower class youth and have interpreted youth culture as subversive of the establishment. According to this interpretation, young people remain dependent on the adult world and adopt more extreme modes of oppositional behaviour than those employed by the previous generation. The battles fought by young people were described as transitional and ineffective and the research shows how they ultimately assimilate into lower class society. Whyte’s earlier study focused on street gangs and showed how a youth subculture in the streets was a common norm of adolescence. Diego Vigil agrees with these findings in his study which describes the development of adolescent street gangs as an alternative to the institution of the family. Habbidge depicts the development of the punk subculture in England in the late-midsixties as a response by young people to the economic crisis of that period. He shows how, through the use of an innovative musical style and violent language, youth groups demonstrated opposition to the consensual values in society. During the last two decades studies have undertaken the subjective interpretation of youth lifestyles by linking their social structure to cultural practices. The Indian-American researcher Sunaina studied second-generation immigrant Indian youth in New York. She shows how, through spending time in clubs and adopting unique styles of clothing, language and music, they provide meaning to their ethnic world and construct a unique identity. An Israeli study conducted by Shabtay portrays the pattern of entertainment of Ethiopian adolescents in their exclusively ethnic clubs as a response to the crisis of their immigration and their way of coping with it. Blackstone writes about the construction of another form of citizenship in Britain from the point of view of ‘Rastafarian-anarchistic’ gangs who do not accept the conventional British social values and express their protest through extremely violent actions. These studies indicate that alternative adolescent lifestyles express symbolic and sometimes even active rebellion. Nagata suggested that the fundamentalist-Islamic trend among youth in Malaysia, Egypt and North America be examined. These generational units have rejected the religion they know and replaced it with a reality that is based upon extremist views. The author demonstrates how, in certain cases, the extremist organizations attract deprived, socially marginalized young people. A feeling of insecurity widespread among the young people because of the poor socio-economic state of their countries assists in the construction of an extremist approach. In addition, feelings of religious pride among the young people reinforce patriotism for their respective countries and hatred for the ‘other’.

In the case of the hilltop youth in Judea and Samaria, existential conditions do not act as a basis for youthful rebellion but rather a lack of confidence in the political and social situation, combined with national-religious (not state) pride. The combination of these two elements comprises the significant components that influence the construction of a fundamentalist protest which finds expression in innovative positions presented to society by these young people.

What emerges from this dissent is a radical social critique filtered through the nationalist-religious society from which the youth emerged. An examination of the long-lasting physical and mental journey they have endured in this heterotopian space as an act of rebellion against their parents’ generation might not only be informative about adolescent growth processes but also should illuminate the principles and values they want to present as an alternative to the political and social approaches of their parents’ generation. Apart from these perceptions, one has to examine the special connection the young people have with different agricultural farms that the border areas offer them. By frequenting these farms, they enter frameworks which structure their socialization and offer them a liminal space to deal with social identity.

Settler Youth Terminology

A number of inaccurate and misleading myths, stereotypes and categorical associations have already been associated with this group of teenagers. For example, among Israelis there is a widespread assumption that these teenagers are merely continuing in the way of their parents—the founders of settlements in Judea and Samaria. The appellation ‘hilltop youth’ was applied to this group before the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip at a time when there was a massive wave of organized activity among teenagers protesting at the government’s decision. Feige described these teenagers as wearing Eastern-style clothing and living in temporary structures on isolated hills of the West Bank bordering the Jewish settlements. However, observations and conversations undertaken in this current study reveal a wide age range of youth types who may be assigned to a vast array of categorical associations; thus, there can be no clear homogenous definition of them, such as ‘hilltop youth’.

Two academic studies provide a portrait of ‘hilltop youth’ in the way they are presented in the media. Kaniel’s pilot study characterizes the group as youth in their early to mid-twenties who see their place in the outposts as an ideological continuation of the generation of the founders. The hills they choose are marked for settlement and usually have some informal contact with the neighbouring settlement, receiving electricity and water from them. Kaniel calls them ‘hilltop settlers’. He differentiates between ‘outposts’ and ‘hills’, and argues that an outpost comprises a tight-knit community that has its own representative committee, similar to established settlements, while the ‘hilltop settlers’ are a collection of people who are not officially organized. In his study, Kaniel shows how the ‘hilltop settlers’ have adopted a biblical-style dress and displayed a cultural affinity to nature. He calls these youth ‘Tzabarim Tanachiim’ (biblical native-born Israelis), thus alluding to the generation of native-born Israelis from the time of the establishment of the State of Israel. The second study, by Feige, which was eventually released as a book, argues that the use of the term ‘hilltop youth’ refers to teenagers who seek to join existing illegal outposts, thus implying that they have accepted the hilltop ideology before arriving at the hilltop itself. In both cases, Kaniel and Feige agree on two important principles: the first relates to the attributes and social origins of the youth—according to both Kaniel and Feige, these are second-generation settlers; the second principle follows from the first and presents the youth as driven by a pure Zionist ideology.

The research conducted for this study finds no support for these claims about the hilltop youth. Except for a few individual teenagers, most of the hilltop youth are not second-generation settlers but rather youth who have come from all across the country. The claim that the group’s activity is based on a specific ideology is also questionable and does not apply across the board. The hilltop youth in Southern Hebron Mount come there as part of a personal quest, a quest for significance in their maturation process.

The personal stories of the young people illustrate the various ways by which youth arrived at these farms. Moti, a youth of 18, describes why he left home at the age of 14 and how events unfolded that led to his staying at the Star of David farm.

At the age of 14 I began fighting with my parents since I didn’t want a religious framework. I wanted something that would help me learn a profession; I didn’t want to study until 9 p.m. every night. My parents told me: that’s what there is! At a certain point things started to blow up at home, because I couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t want it. Then it all blew up during a Shabbat dinner. They said ‘it’s all or nothing.’ That’s how I started wandering the streets of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem looking for food and a job. Then my friend gave me the number of someone who was looking for construction workers in Bat Ayin. I lived in Bat Ayin for three years until I visited Havat Magen David where I met Elyashiv, a teen that already worked there, and another person who always came and left. I arrived for a visit and have been here for two years.

Moti’s case shows how unplanned wandering was in fact a search for peace of mind, normality and a home, not ideological motivation. For many of the hilltop youth there is often spontaneous organization, lack of an ideological common denominator and exposure to settlement ideology.

The Process of Socialization: From Marginal Youth to Hilltop Youth

Now we will show how the young people on the farms became transformed from ‘youth at risk’ to deviant youth rejected by the local society of south Mt. Hebron and ended up as hilltop youth. As part of the struggle of the young people with their self-images and the changes they went through, and as a reaction to the way adults perceived them, they adopted patterns of thought and behaviour that expressed social rebellion against their parents’ generation. By spending their spare time in politically disputed areas—that is, in areas where permanent settlement is prohibited to both Israelis and Palestinians—the young people sought to demonstrate a different mode of settling. Roaming at night between solitary hilltops and constructing temporary dwellings throughout the area with no fences or walls expressed ‘ambulatory opposition’ to the veteran form of settlement, which, they claim, had become bankrupt. Their new way of settling was an expression of anger, as well as criticism of the adults in the settlements, who did not know how to help them at a time of personal crisis when they dropped out of the normative track of adolescent youth. What appear to many observers as harmony—a new form of settlement manifesting conformity with the practices of the previous generation—is actually a force that has arisen in opposition to the parental generation.

A Fight between Shepherds or a Demonstration of Strength and Manliness?

For the young men, the areas south of Mt. Hebron are a place of refuge and a home in which they find peace and serenity at a time when they are forming their identities during their adolescence. Their stay at the farm provides a flexible framework with no restrictive laws except for their work duties and the rules of behaviour in the living areas. This allows the young men to occupy themselves with local questions about the region and social and political issues. This style of life has led to the creation of a form of flexible socialization on the part of the farmers which, on the one hand, directs and guides but, on the other hand, liberates the creative thinking of the adolescents for the construction of a new ideology. The following anecdote demonstrates the kind of socialization which allows them to create rules and norms on the basis of their interactions with the Palestinians in a highly charged area. It also illustrates how the youth use space not only as a tool to construct a masculine identity as mature adolescents but also as a forum to exhibit the way they practise their ideology.

The following case describes a common conflict among Jewish and Arab shepherds to which the hilltop youth give an ideological interpretation.

Yaron is a young man of 18 who has been living in the Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai) farm for a year after having left his parents’ home in Arad. He did not serve in the army because of criminal charges by the police. His job on the farm is to be a shepherd grazing his flock of 200 sheep and goats twice a day for 4–6 hours each time in the vicinity of the farm. Yaron exhibits a surprising ability to identify the dominant sheep and goats that lead the flock. When asked what the borders of the pasture area were—i.e. how far he allowed himself to take the flock—he recited an incident that took place with a Palestinian shepherd.

In principle I was told in general where I could go, which areas I should not enter in order to avoid trouble, but, bottom line, there is no border. Look. I can go past this olive tree here, down below, and I am over the border. Why? Who decided this was the border? Why is the area beyond the olive tree not a Jewish area? In brief what happened there was this. One day I got to that area near the wady [gully] down there because the animals led me there and it was fine with me. I planned to continue from there to the right and then to climb back to the well, let them drink and then return to the farm. While I was wandering around in the wad I saw another flock of sheep. I understood that an Arab shepherd was coming in my direction. I decided to gather in all the sheep close to me and he comes up to me and starts cursing me in Hebrew and Arabic. I didn’t understand everything but I did understand the word ‘Yahud’ (Jew) and the words ‘Ruh min hon’ which means ‘Get out of here!’ I immediately got mad. Who does he think he is that he can drive me away? What a nerve! I went up to him and swore at him as well and continued on with my flock. Suddenly some other Arab kids arrived and I contacted Ophir with my phone because I understood that there was trouble here. Ophir got here with two other guys and a fight started; Ophir also called in the Border Police who arrived quickly to lend a hand and it was all over. I continued on with the flock in order to go back. Now try to understand, from my point of view. What’s important is the fact that I don’t take them into account and that they shouldn’t think for a moment that it is their territory. You think he can tell me where I can and can’t go? As if, you know, this land belongs to them. What do they think? They’re dreaming!

From the description of this encounter and Yaron’s interpretation of the incident we can learn about the ideas of the young people concerning the question of ownership of the land. In this encounter Yaron decided to ignore the boundaries of which he had been informed by his superiors—boundaries that were not marked on the ground and were open to interpretation—and by doing so, sought to dispute their existence and demonstrate his claims regarding boundaries. From his point of view these boundaries do not exist and he does not recognize them in the same way that he does not recognize the politicians whose approach to the boundary issue he opposes. The deliberate testament that he gives about the areas that are not defined as authorized for grazing by Jews expresses his claim for ownership of the land. Moreover, the expected incident manifested itself as a way of protest against and a demonstration of strength towards the shepherd from the neighbouring Palestinian village who wanted to define these areas as belonging to him. Yaron could have distanced himself from the Palestinian shepherd, retraced his steps and still established the impression that he wanted to create. However, he wasn’t satisfied with only transgressing the boundary and physically establishing a presence beyond his territory in order to demonstrate his criticism of the establishment of boundaries for his flock since, from his point of view; this virtually meant that only part of the space belonged to him. Thus, he initiated a ‘media’ incident of the sort that would leave a strong impression on those who took part in it. By creating this violent incident Yaron strengthened his claim and clarified it both to himself and to others. What we have here is the deliberate creation of an encounter and its exploitation for the purposes of demonstrating strength and control.


Southern Mt. Hebron, being a border frontier area, can ethnographically be seen as a wild and open space. The blurring of boundaries, the endless conflicts between the shepherds, and the plethora of ideas that are just waiting to be adopted for improvement or rejection are a fertile soil for the growth of a hilltop youth subculture. In this space emerged a multitude of ideas and possibilities that served as a basis for the construction of an ideology. In the current context one may relate to the space as a liminal zone which allows the various groups that exist in it to negotiate over ideas and grant it cultural significance. The young people arrive at the hilltops after an exhausting journey, having cut themselves off from their families and close environment, and they seek, above all, rest and tranquillity. The isolated farms provide bare necessities for living which satisfy these adolescents, and sometimes also an attentive ear, company and support from the farmers. Among the very interesting and important points for understanding what the media and Israeli society refer to as ‘hilltop youth’ are as follows.

Origins of the Youth

From their stories, we learn that most of the young people came to this area in a completely spontaneous fashion after having wandered around in different places looking for a home; they are not the second generation of settlers. The phenomenon of the hilltop youth is unique and fascinating. Apart from the farmer whose only goal is to manage and maintain his agricultural activity, there is no evident leader or educator who guides the organization of the youth’s activities. Their ideological world is turned upside down during their stay in the completely open spaces. Up to a certain point the phenomenon is reminiscent of the way a street gang organizes itself, namely spontaneous formation of the group and development of social norms and values without belonging to a social group that is dependent upon the support of the adult generation.

But what we can see here is youth groups which display the way they deal with a complex, tension-ridden reality in an environment that is replete with constant enmity and violence. These environmental characteristics act as a rich and intriguing field for the examination of social behaviours in the process of the personal and social identity formation of these young men. This approach might also shed light upon the phenomenon of youth at risk in other social contexts which are geographically and socially distant from the hilltop youth. This article examines the motives for the development of a youth culture, its characteristics and its social structure. My study looks at an extremist group that, on the micro level, displays violent and provocative behaviour against the local society of settlers and, on the macro level, against Israeli society. Because this is the case, this study offers an additional interesting direction of research that focuses upon Israeli politics and the tension-ridden issues involving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Through their demonstrations of strength towards Palestinian agricultural workers, the construction of temporary structures on the hills surrounding the settlements, their nocturnal wandering in the region, the hilltop youth gangs are demonstrating another way of establishing communities. In their struggle with a politically and socially, tension-ridden environment and the formation of an identity during the process of their adolescence, the young people respond to the challenge of settlement that they claim has been neglected by the founding generation. Based on practices they have adopted from the heroic stories of the settlers in the 1970s, the youth challenge those same founding settlers that live only a few hundred metres from them on a hill that they have ‘conquered’. Their innovative praxis expresses a display of strength, masculinity and protest ‘through their feet’.

The hilltop gangs form themselves around the ideas of rebellion against their parents and opposition to the way of life that was imposed upon them –sometimes too aggressively. The expression of this rebellion appears at first glance to be acts of idle roving but a deeper inspection reveals the creation of an ideological system and cultural practices. Initially, the picture seems chaotic but soon resolves itself into an organized exhibition of a subculture. The young men go to the hilltops in a spontaneous fashion without any previous mutual connections except for one common denominator, the search for a new life. In other words, in contrast to the expectation of finding an organic, organized group of young people who are steeped in ideology and who are the next generation of the settlement movement, we found a spontaneous, temporary group whose ideological development came from wandering around in the region while learning about the complex environment.

Together, this first encounter with the Mt. Hebron region and the choice made by the youths to stay there was not a coincidence. In fact, the development of the cultural phenomenon is the metamorphosis of this point. On their way to becoming the hilltop youth they were exposed to rejection by and alienation from the adults who hosted them, but even at an earlier stage than this by the communities from which they escaped.

From the stories of the youth we have seen how the feeling of isolation grew with the absence of openness on the part of their parents when they chose to distance themselves from religion. Thus, in their search for a society that is capable of accepting them with all their differences, the youth arrive in the wilderness spaces of southern Mt. Hebron which, from the outset, are characterized by the fact that there is no significance to boundaries. Thus, this is the optimal place to be for young people who have not succeeded in adjusting to boundaries. This paper shows how youth, who are not dependent upon one another, gather together in spaces in which they might find refuge for both body and soul. The longer their stay in this environment, the more the young people adopt lifestyles and behavioural norms suitable for their new promising community. The exposure to a place that is charged with political and social conflicts as allows them a space where they can mature, and this type of choice leads them to adopt behaviours that, in the past, were characteristic of the youth of Sebastia. They enjoy closeness to nature and the breaking down of boundaries and so conform to the values and practices of the previous generation of settlers—only in more radical ways and using newer methods. Thus, an agricultural farm that has placed itself upon a desolate hill becomes an informal institution for rehabilitation and a hothouse for the growth of a new and menacing subculture or, perhaps, only the expression of passing youthful rebellion.