‘We have a biblical right to be safe here’: settlers at the heart of West Bank storm

Israelis living in the occupied territory say the Hamas attacks have justified their own hardline stance

Jason Burke






Tamal Sikurel pats her belly, swollen with her sixth child, and smiles. “It is part of the war effort,” she says. Behind her is a school empty of pupils and homes empty of their former inhabitants. Beyond the buildings are dry hills sloping down to the Jordan valley. “For thousands of generations we have always had to fight to justify our existence … I feel the power of that history every day. We have all the biblical rights, historical rights and moral right to keep ourselves safe here,” Sikurel said. This 35-year-old, and the other 500,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, are now at the centre of a growing storm of violence and controversy as the war between Israel and Hamas moves into its seventh week. Some are motivated by religious or nationalistic reasons, others by the lower cost of living. What was once seen as a pioneer lifestyle is now often very comfortable: some early settlements, once tiny rudimentary “wildcat” outposts, are now well established and wealthy, with security guards at the entrance and fences topped with cameras and barbed wire. Their population has surged 16% in the last five years. Israeli human rights groups say settlers, already empowered by the most rightwing government in Israel’s history, have exploited the conflict to pursue their own agenda, intensifying efforts to force Palestinians out of their homes on the West Bank. Last Thursday, the French government condemned this as a “policy of terror” and urged Israeli authorities to protect Palestinians from “violence which has the clear objective of forced displacement”. President Joe Biden, a staunch ally of Israel, said last month the attacks by “extremist settlers” amounted to “pouring gasoline” on the already burning fires in the Middle East. Such criticism may explain a recent public relations effort by settlers to improve their image. Regavim, a prosettler NGO usually hostile to international journalists, drove a busload of reporters into the south Hebron hills last Thursday while giving them a lecture about the conflict. One stop on the tour was Zanuta, a village where the Guardian had previously reported that weeks of intense settler violence had, by the end of October, forced its 150 Palestinian residents to make a reluctant collective decision to leave. Armed settlers – some in reservist army uniforms, some covering their faces – had begun breaking into their homes at night, beating up the adults, destroying and stealing belongings, and terrifying the children. Naomi Kahn, a spokesperson for Regavim, denied that there was any campaign to displace Palestinians and said the former Zanuta residents were “squatters”, the “foot soldiers of Palestinian independence”. Paid to live in the village by the EU, they had simply decided to “move on” when the payments stopped. “Israel is powerless because of international pressure. The EU is making a situation that can only be resolved by force,” Kahn said. Many of the settlers who spoke to the Observer said they believe they had been vindicated by the 7 October attacks launched by Hamas into southern Israel, killing 1,200 Israelis. Yochai Damari, leader of the Har Hevron regional council , which administers settlements across a swath of the southern West Bank, claimed the 7 October attacks had given “Arabs courage and inspiration”. “Most of all, there is a very strong feeling that this is the moment to destroy Hamas and destroy the same agenda among the Arabs here,” he told the Observer. After an Israeli soldier was killed at a checkpoint on the West Bank’s route 60, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, said last week that Israel needed to deal with Hamas in the West Bank “exactly like we are dealing with Gaza”. Gaza health authorities say at least 12,000 people have been confirmed killed in the Israeli bombardment and ground invasion – more than 5,000 of them children. At least a million have been displaced. Many of the more hardline settlers say they want peace but are “on the frontline of the war”. Sikurel claimed that last month’s attacks had been a “wake-up call”, demonstrating “that we live on different planets”. “We in the western world want to live in faith and safety in the normal world, and time after time they are showing us that they do not think the Jews have a right to exist,” she said. Such rhetoric is common across Israel after last month’s attacks but has long characterised the views of many settlers and led to accusations of racism. “I have heard so much … about the violence of the settlers and it is so weird. When I go out of my settlement, I am afraid. They work with us, we give them coffee but I do not know if one of them will kill me,” said Orit Marketinger, a 24-year-old from the settlement of Otniel whose father was shot dead in 2016 by a Palestinian. “We want peace and we believe in the law. They believe in hate and they kill us just because we are Jewish,” she said. A total of 138 Israelis and 1,012 Palestinians were killed on the West Bank from 2008 to September this year, according to the UN. Since 7 October, Israeli internal security services are aware of four cases in which the settlers shot and killed Palestinians, the local Haaretz newspaper has reported. A kilometre or so to the south of Zanuta is the line where the West Bank – occupied by Israel after the 1967 war – ends and the internationally recognised territory of the Jewish state begins. For many settlers, this delimitation is aberrant. They refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, two ancient Israelite kingdoms. These terms are also used administratively by the Israeli government. “These are the biblical lands that were promised to the patriarchs thousands of years ago, and they walked on these lands, and now it is my generation that walks here,” said Damari. The settlers deride the widely held view that their presence is not only a major obstacle to any possible progress towards peace, however unlikely at this current moment of conflict, but also a source of much of the violence sweeping the occupied territories. This year was already the deadliest in at least 15 years for West Bank residents, with some 200 Palestinians and 26 Israelis killed, according to UN data. Earlier this month, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, blamed the violence on “a tiny handful of people [among the settlers] who take the law into their own hands”. Nathalie Sopinsky, originally from Delaware in the US, has lived in the settlement of Susiya for 16 years and leads a first-response medical service for settlers. Sopinsky said she had been extremely busy with “normal injuries, terrorism injuries” but had made a “lifestyle choice” to live in the occupied West Bank. “There is no traffic, plenty of parking,” she said. “I go out to walk with my daughter in the morning. There are goats and shepherds. It’s all fresh and natural.”