Hours before the start of the Jewish Sabbath, armed Israeli soldiers on Friday shut down a seminary for ultranationalist Jewish students in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar.
The troops, using the kind of tactics usually reserved for militant Palestinians, seized control of the seminary, Ode Yosef Chai ("Joseph Yet Lives") and erected a barbed-wire cordon around the seminary building, which doubles as a synagogue. As dusk settled over the hills, the soldiers were patrolling the perimeter, accompanied by army jeeps, as residents of the settlement looked on stone-faced.
The unannounced operation to seize control of the seminary took place after residents of Yitzhar and others carried out this past week what until recently would have been considered almost unthinkable in Israel: In retaliation for the military's razing of illegal settler buildings, they destroyed the outpost of the Israeli soldiers deployed to protect them.
The melee has triggered debate in Israel: Did the settlers commit a terrorist act?
On Thursday, the six former heads of Israel's internal security service Shin Bet gave a rare joint interview to the Yediot Ahronot newspaper in which they called the attack by the settlers an episode of "Jewish terror," echoing terms used earlier this week by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon to describe the incident.
The state has so far used kid gloves to deal with Jewish extremists, said one of the former Shin Bet directors, Carmi Gillon, who suggested using interrogation techniques for the extremists that are designed for members of Hamas, the militant Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip and is sworn to Israel's destruction
Ami Ayalon, another ex-Shin Bet director, said in separate interview that Israelis have shied away from this debate because "it is obvious that it might tear apart our society." Some Jewish settlers have adopted the same methods used by Palestinian fighters, yet the Israeli public was guilty of a double standard because it judged these settlers differently, he said.
Palestinians in the West Bank said they are frequently the targets of violence from Jewish settlers. Israel's army counted 72 so-called price tag attacks by settlers in the first two months of 2014, a monthly average a third higher than that in 2013.