JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A far-right Israeli group that agitates against Arabs in the name of religion and national security is forcing the Jewish state into a legal and political balancing act as it tries to contain sectarian violence.
Among their activities, Lehava activists yelling “Death to the Arabs” picketed the wedding in August of a Muslim to a Jewish woman who converted to Islam.
Now three members have been charged with an arson attack on a cross-faith school in Jerusalem last month.
Communal tension has been rising following last summer’s Gaza war, in which more than 2,000 Palestinians died, and feuding over access to Jerusalem’s holiest site.
This has spilled over into Palestinian street attacks on Jews, including the killing of four rabbis and a Druze policeman at a synagogue.
Illustrating the risk of sectarian violence, a Palestinian youth was burned to death in July by Israeli assailants in alleged revenge for the killing of three Jewish teens by militants in the West Bank.
The authorities are under pressure to deal with anyone encouraging Jewish retaliation against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. Efforts to tackle Lehava, however, may be complicated by guarantees of free speech and sympathy for the group among a minority of Israelis.
Lehava, whose name means “flame” but is also a Hebrew acronym for “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land”, denies wrongdoing and says it is the target of a political witch-hunt.
Police rounded up 21 Lehava members, including its leader Benzion Gopshtein, after the attack on the school where Jewish and Arab children study together.
The raids suggest a crackdown on Lehava, and maybe a ban, is in the works.