JERUSALEM — Israeli authorities kicked off a promised crackdown on Jewish extremists following last week's deadly arson attack on a Palestinian family, arresting a high-profile activist accused of leading a new movement of defiant settler youths who embrace violence and reject the rule of law in the name of the purity of the Holy Land.
Meir Ettinger, whose arrest Monday was extended in court Tuesday, is the grandson of U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, Israel's most notorious Jewish extremist, whose ultranationalist party was banned from Israel's parliament for its racist views in 1988 and who was killed by an Arab gunman in New York in 1990.
According to the Shin Bet security agency, the 23-year-old Ettinger was arrested for "involvement in an extremist Jewish organization." The agency would not say if he is also suspected in the July 31 arson attack, but it has accused Ettinger of heading an extremist movement seeking to bring about religious "redemption" through attacks on Christian sites and Palestinian homes.
Ettinger, in a large skullcap, scruffy beard and sidelocks, smiled at the swarm of news crews before his hearing. In a July 30 blog post before his arrest, he denied the Shin Bet's accusation that he leads an extremist group.
"There is no terror organization, but there are many, many Jews, many more than people think, whose value system is completely different than that of the Israeli Supreme Court or the Shin Bet," Ettinger wrote. "The laws they are bound by are not the State's laws ... but laws that are much more eternal and real."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged "zero tolerance" for Jewish terrorism following two deadly attacks by extremists. The attack that killed 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and severely injured his parents and 4-year-old brother in the West Bank came a day after an anti-gay ultra-Orthodox man stabbed a 16-year-old Israeli girl during a rampage against marchers at Jerusalem's gay pride parade. The girl later died of her wounds.
Authorities are expected to crack down much harder on suspected Jewish extremist cells, particularly among West Bank settler youths.
"I have heard from the fringes of our society that there are those who say there is a supreme law above the country's laws. I wish to clarify that there is no law above the country's laws," Netanyahu said Tuesday. "Whoever breaks them, whoever champions hate crimes, whoever carries out violence, whoever carries out terror, we will act against them with all the weight of the law."
Israeli media have dubbed Ettinger the Shin Bet's "No. 1" most-wanted Jewish extremist. He has been arrested several times before and banned from the West Bank. His lawyer, Yuval Zemer, told Israel's Army Radio that authorities arrested his client to appease an Israeli public outraged by the arson attack.
"There was no urgent need to arrest here, other than some kind of desire to show, 'Here, we're doing something, here, we're arresting,'" Zemer said. "Of course, what is better than the No. 1 most-wanted target?"
The Shin Bet singled out Ettinger two days before the attack on the West Bank home when it announced it had uncovered a Jewish extremist movement of young settler activists responsible for a June arson attack of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish, a prominent Catholic church near the Sea of Galilee, and a number of other hate crimes.
Authorities indicted two other young extremists and arrested three others in connection with the church arson attack. The Shin Bet said Ettinger's group vandalized a number of Christian religious sites in the past two years, tried to disrupt Pope Francis' 2014 visit to the Holy Land, and committed "more significant terrorist attacks of arson" against Palestinian homes in the West Bank in the past year.
A month before the church attack, Ettinger called on his blog for more attacks on Christian religious sites. He had lived in recent months in unauthorized Jewish settlement encampments in the West Bank set up by the "hilltop youth," the Shin Bet said, using a term referring to radicalized Jewish teen squatters on West Bank hilltops who have been known to attack Palestinians and their property.
Six months ago, authorities signed a yearlong order preventing Ettinger from entering Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements, saying he posed a danger. He moved to the northern city of Safed, a hub for Jewish religious mystics.
Shlomo Fischer, an expert on Jewish extremism, said the recent attacks appeared to be the work of those acting without the explicit blessing of rabbinic figures, as has been the case in the past.
"They seem to represent a relatively new kind of religious authority — that of the violent activists themselves," Fischer said. "The violent activists conceive of themselves as having a sort of charismatic-prophetic authority and what authorizes these extreme actions is 'the voice of God' within them."
Also Tuesday, Israeli security forces demolished a Jewish settlement house in an outpost of the Eli settlement that had been built illegally on private Palestinian land in the West Bank. COGAT, the defense body that handles civilian issues with the Palestinians, said the demolition was coordinated with the settlers and there were no protests.
Last week, settlers clashed with Israeli troops as Israeli bulldozers demolished a contested housing complex in another Jewish settlement in the West Bank — an action that has previously drawn reprisals from settler youth.
This story has been corrected to show that Pope Francis, not Pope Benedict XVI, visited the Holy Land in 2014.