A Re-established West Bank Settlement Symbolizes Hardened Israeli Views


For an Israeli settlement that has become such a resounding symbol of religious and right-wing politics in the West Bank, Homesh is not much to look at.

Three families live in tarpaulin-covered shelters full of bunk beds for some 50 young men, who study in a yeshiva that is a shabby prefab structure surrounded by abandoned toys, building materials and garbage.

They live part time here amid the ruins and rubbish of a hilltop settlement ripped down in 2005 by the Israeli Army and the police. It is one of four West Bank settlements dismantled when Israel pulled all of its troops and settlements out of Gaza. Israel’s intention then, pushed by Washington, was to signal that outlying settlements too hard to defend would be consolidated in any future peace deal.

The decision to dismantle them is now being challenged by the more religious and right-wing ministers in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. They are agitating to settle more land in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and even remove Palestinians from Gaza to resettle there.

Homesh, perched in the hills above Nablus, has become a symbol of their resolve.

Early last year, the Israeli government decided to relegalize Homesh, but the Supreme Court then required the government to dismantle it once more and ensure that Palestinians who own the land on which it sits can reach it safely.

Instead, the settlers moved their prefab yeshiva to a small spot of what is considered state or public land and are defying the court’s order, with the fervent support of the Shomron Regional Council.

It is settlements like these that Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has promised to expand, announcing plans late last week for 3,000 new homes, “deepening our eternal grip on the entire land of Israel.” The Biden administration reacted immediately, opposing any expansion and calling existing settlements “inconsistent with international law.”

But after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, settlements like Homesh embody the shift in thinking among Israelis since the days, seemingly ages ago, when dialogue with Palestinians focused on a two-state solution.

The rise of Hamas in Gaza and the deepening religious and rightward drift of Israeli politics have changed that. After Oct. 7, more Israelis not only oppose an independent Palestinian state, but a larger minority favor expanding settlements further, including in a reoccupied Gaza.

Emboldened, settlers like those in Homesh consider themselves a vanguard, pulling the army along in their wake. Today, they are protected (and nearly outnumbered) by bored Israeli soldiers, who say that their orders are to keep the settlers and the local Palestinians apart, to avoid new clashes and bloodshed.

“Our orders are to be a human fence between the two sides,” one soldier said, asking anonymity for speaking without authorization. “We try to keep them apart; we try to stop the settlers going down the hill. And we tell the Palestinians, ‘You don’t need to be here.’”

The effect of the military presence is to keep the Palestinians from their land, and the new checkpoints badly damage the businesses along Route 60, the main north-south road in the West Bank that leads from Ramallah to Nablus and Jenin.

The new settlers of Homesh believe they are retaking land God granted the Jews in biblical times and do not much care what their own government thinks. They are hostile to journalists and have no interest in the beliefs or property deeds of the Palestinians.

The Palestinians who live in the villages under Homesh and who own most of its land say the settlers are aggressive and violent. Sometimes armed with rifles, the settlers intermittently engage in housebreaking, sheep stealing and vandalism. They chop down olive trees, roll flaming tires down the hills to burn crops and even send boars to dig up Palestinian seedlings and fruit trees, the locals say.

Salah Qararia, 54, showed visitors the broken windows and doors of his house, on his own land perhaps 200 yards down the hill from Homesh. Settlers armed with pistols have come often, shouting racist insults and throwing stones, and have uprooted some of his 600 fruit trees, he said. So he has sent his wife and seven children away and stays in the house to guard it, and has bought some dogs to try to keep the boars away.

“They try to scare us,” Mr. Qararia said. “They want to try to take the house and the land.”

Does he complain to the army or to the Palestinian Authority, which exercises civil control over parts of the West Bank? He laughed. “The P.A. is powerless here,” he said. As for the army, “you cannot speak to them, you cannot reach them. And they would take their side for sure.”

Mr. Qararia and his neighbors have a WhatsApp group to warn one another if the settlers approach, he said. “But it’s very dangerous to come and help.” The settlers have weapons, he said. “We do not.”

He did say that sometimes he had seen the soldiers trying to restrain the settlers, who push back at them. “They don’t listen to the soldiers,” he said.

Most of them came after Mr. Netanyahu’s 2022 re-election, he said. They have been supported by far-right ministers like Mr. Smotrich, who has long wanted to rebuild Homesh, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security.

“The settlers are seeking the delegitimization of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza,” said Amnon Abramovich, an Israeli commentator for Channel 12. “Why disband the four in the West Bank?” It was a signal by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “that in the years to come he would evacuate many more.”

Like Yitzhak Rabin, Mr. Sharon wanted to stay in the West Bank but bring outlying settlers into three defensible settlement blocs, removing the outposts that were overextending the resources of the army, Mr. Abramovich said.

But Mr. Sharon had a stroke soon afterward, and under successive governments, settlement activity accelerated.

Jihad Moussa, 46, who sells building materials, is constructing a house on his land on the hill near Homesh. But some eight months ago, 30 settlers with butcher knives and wire cutters, some with M16 rifles, took all the aluminum windows and doors, stole the water pumps, “and what they couldn’t take, they broke, including the marble on my new staircase,” he said.

He showed a video that he said was taken from his shop’s security camera and showed settlers smashing the windows of a car and truck. He said he went to the Israeli police with the video, which The New York Times could not verify, but the police never called back.

He now lives in town in an older house with water damage, afraid to continue building his new home. “I’m scared to live there,” he said, fearing for his wife and children.

Asked to comment on Homesh and the allegations of settler violence, the Israeli military said in a statement that officers of the army and the police, when they “encounter incidents of violation of the law by Israelis, especially violent incidents or incidents directed at Palestinians and their property, are required to act to stop the violation and if necessary to detain or arrest the suspects until police arrive at the scene.”

“Any claim” that the military “supports and permits settler violence is false,” the statement continued. Palestinians may also file a complaint with the Israeli police, the statement said.

Ghassan Qararia, the head of Al Fandaqumiya village council, said that he gave landowners a tax discount “to be steadfast on the land and build on it, but they are too scared.”

Abdel Fatah Abu Ali, the mayor of nearby Silat Ad-Dhahr, also situated under Homesh, said that since Oct. 7, Israeli military checkpoints to protect the settlers had badly damaged commerce and travel along Route 60.

“I can’t even go to Nablus or Ramallah now,” the mayor said. “I can’t go to Al Aqsa to pray,” citing the Jerusalem mosque, one of Islam’s holiest places. He laughed bitterly. “Did the settlers close the road? No, it was the army that protects them. There is no difference between them.”

Mr. Abu Ali, 65, lived for a time in the United States. “I had the taste of freedom there,” he said. “Here now it is the taste of hell.”

The Palestinian Authority was “useless,” he said. “My government is corrupt. They are the Harvard University of corruption.”

The issue of Homesh is increasingly sensitive, even among the settlers, who feel they get hostile media coverage.

Some members of the Homesh settlement had agreed to talk to me, but when Esther Allouch, the Shomron Council spokeswoman, heard of my plans to visit, she said she would cooperate only if I provided quotations for approval and promised not to include any Palestinians in my report.

I did not agree to her conditions. Ms. Allouch then refused to cooperate and discouraged others from doing so, telling the settlers there not to invite us in, they said. It was only after a call to Israeli commanders that soldiers agreed to let us enter.

The students, forewarned, refused to talk. But Avihoo Ben-Zahav, 26, visiting Homesh from a nearby settlement after doing his reserve duty in the army, spoke freely.

“We are here because of our love for all the land of Israel,” he said. “That people were forced out of this village is a wound that is still bleeding.” Pointing toward Tel Aviv in the distance, he said that Homesh was “one of the most beautiful and strategic spots in the country.”

“We’re here because God gave us this land in the Torah,” he said. “It will be better for the Palestinians if we are secure in our place.”

Local Palestinians vow to preserve what is theirs.

Salah Qararia, who stays in his vandalized house to protect it, said firmly, “I will never leave the land, even if I die defending it.”

Natan Odenheimer contributed reporting from Homesh and Shavei Shomron, and Rami Nazzal from Silat Ad-Dhahr and Al Fandaqumiya.


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