Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a hero of the settler movement and co-founder of its fundamentalist Gush Emunim group, who established Jewish communities in Hebron and throughout the West Bank, conducted armed takeovers of Palestinian homes, and was convicted of manslaughter, died on Saturday in the settlement of Hebron where he lived. Levinger was 80.
After his passing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded Levinger’s revitalization of the Jewish settlement of Hebron, one of the earliest outposts built in the occupied Palestinian territory after the June 1967 war. Posing as Swiss tourists, on the eve of Passover in April 1968 Levinger led 60-80 Israelis to a hotel in the Palestinian city. They brought with them suitcases, a refrigerator and a washing machine. Although the Israeli army issued eviction notices, Levinger’s group never left. Today Hebron is considered a stronghold for Israel’s right-wing settlers and supports a population of around 700.
“Rabbi Levinger’s name will be forever linked with the movement for renewed Jewish settlement in Hebron and other areas of the country where our patriarchs walked thousands of years ago. He was an outstanding example of a generation that sought to realize the Zionist dream, in deed and in spirit, after the Six Day War,” Netanyahu wrote in the letter to the Levinger family.
On Sunday Israeli President Reuven Rivlin traveled to Hebron to give an official eulogy to thousands of mourners. He said while Levinger was not a “man of consensus,” his ability to work across partisan divides to build the settlement movement made him one of Israel’s “most treasured sons.”
“Not for nothing the first donor to the Hebron Yeshiva, under your leadership, Rabbi Levinger, was David Ben-Gurion [Israel’s first Prime Minister], who donated 100 Israeli Lira (the old Israeli currency). Not for nothing were you very active with Yigal Alon, and members of the ‘Greater Land of Israel’ movement, who were mainly from the Labor movement, in rebuilding the Jewish community once again, here in Kiryat Arba, in Hebron,” Rivlin said.
Taking to Facebook, Likud’s Miri Regev, the new minister of culture and sports wrote, “Rabbi Moshe Levinger carried the banner for the revival of the Jewish settlement in the city of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and he was a trailblazer and a symbol for the Jewish settlement in Hebron and the West Bank.”
Born in Jerusalem, Levinger was a student of the father of modern religious Zionism, Zvi Yehuda Kook. The two made popular the “greater Israel movement” through Levinger’s group Gush Emunim, presiding over it during the decades the militant Jewish Underground was active. They believed a mass exodus of Israelis over the Green would further the cause of annexation. David Remnick dubbed the pair, “armed prophets and politicians” in the pages of The New Yorker.
During the 1980s Levinger’s use of violence in building settlements caught the attention of the United Nations. In 1985 he went on a three-month armed vigilante patrol of a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem. The United Nations documented Levinger, “provoked the inhabitants of the camp by firing at them and invading their homes,” and, “reportedly ran along the camp alleys, together with a guard, and both men fired into the air in an indiscriminate manner.” That same year Levinger broke into a Palestinian house in Hebron and assaulted a six-year old. Like many of his arrests that decade, he was given a suspended sentence.
Later in 1988 Levinger was convicted for killing Kayed Sallah, 42, an unarmed Palestinian in Hebron. Levinger told the court he fired shots in self-defense against rock-throwers, but claimed the death was caused by the Israeli army. Palestinian and military witnesses both disputed this. Levinger was then released on “good behavior” after a short 92 days sentence, wire agencies reported. At the time he showed little remorse.
“If I’m in a situation of danger again, I’ll again open fire,” wire agencies reported Levinger said to Israel radio. “I hope that next time, I will be more careful and I won’t miss the target.”
Levinger continued to be arrested for acts of violence and provocation into the late 1990s.