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Israel: the enemy within

Teenage Jewish boys claim West Bank hilltops as their own.

The messiah will come sooner, Jews like Gottlieb believe, if most or all of the Jews in the world return to live in Israel. Which, in their minds and in some interpretations of the geography of the Hebrew Bible, stretches from Egypt to part of Iraq.

There is very little of America left in Aaron. He goes back sometimes to visit his grandmother, who lives on Park Avenue, but he dislikes the sinfulness of the United States. Israel is his home. And he’s prepared to give his life for the Land of Israel. “I’m a soldier for what I believe,” he said.

For all his bravado and conviction, Gottlieb is fundamentally a sweet-natured teenager. He insists he would never fight against the Israeli army. He is the gentle face of the Hilltop Youth and the extremist settlers.

But there are others who would seem more ready to fight.

This summer I met 21-year-old Ephraim Khantsis in a kosher, Israeli-owned pizza parlor near his home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Like Gottlieb, he was gentle and unimposing. But he was rigid in his views. Later in the year, he told me, he would pack a couple of suitcases, say good-bye to his mother, leave his home in Brooklyn, and move to Israel. On arrival in Jerusalem he would enroll in a yeshiva, or religious school, that is popular with Americans. After a year of study he would make his way north, to a place this young American feels is his true home: the Jewish settlement of Kfar Tapuach, population about 600.

Khantsis, who was in the process of applying for Israeli citizenship, will fit right in. Like the assassinated Brooklyn-born rabbi Meir Kahane, the man some in Kfar Tapuach consider their spiritual leader, Khantsis believes that all Arabs and Palestinians should be forcibly removed from territory controlled by Israel, including the West Bank.

“It's the most humane way to solve the situation,” said Khantsis, who this year graduated from Stony Brook University, on Long Island, with a degree in computer science. He acknowledged that he was advocating ethnic cleansing.

While such a view is unlikely to become mainstream in Israel, there's a pledge Khantsis made that might be more troubling to Israeli authorities: If the Israeli military comes to remove him from his new home — and many in Israel believe such an event is likely — he will not leave peacefully.

“I would fight against it with all my strength, and I would leave nothing back to try to stop it," said the slim young man wearing a black yarmulke. He spoke so softly that at times it was hard to hear him. “If they use violence, then we're justified doing the same.”

Would that include using a gun?

“Yes,” he said.

Is he absolutely sure that he would use a weapon against Israeli soldiers?

“That's right. I strongly hope it would never come to that,” he said. But “if they're already shooting us, I'd have no option. I don't think the right thing to do is turn the other cheek."

Read the rest of "Israel's enemy within":

Part 1: A rising militancy from the Jewish settlements

Part 2: A community on the edge

Part 3: Palestinian militants gird for battle

GlobalPost correspondent Matt McAllester has reported on Israel/Palestine since the late 1990s, when he was Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, and more recently as a contributing editor for Details magazine. The field reporting for this series was done over several weeks in the West Bank and Israel earlier this year.