In Gaza War, Israel’s Radical Settlers See an Opportunity to Expand

Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post
Yehuda Shimon stands Dec. 10, 2023, inside one of the first houses that settlers established in the Havat Gilad settlement, in the occupied West Bank.

HAVAT GILAD, West Bank – This community was founded on blood and retribution.

When Gilad Zar, who oversaw security for Jewish settlers in the area, was shot dead by Palestinian gunmen in 2001, his father, a member of the Jewish Underground, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, swore that he would establish six new illegal settlements – one for each letter of his name.

Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post
The Havat Gilad settlement, seen Dec. 10, 2023, is on a hill among Palestinian villages southwest of the city of Nablus, in the occupied West Bank.

Havat Gilad, or Gilad’s Farm, a settlement of some 80 families clinging to a steep hillside near the Palestinian city of Nablus, is one of them.

And now, as Israel reels from the Hamas attack Oct. 7, the deadliest single day since the modern state was founded, the country’s extremist settler fringe sees new opportunities to expel Palestinians and expand the Jewish footprint in the occupied territories, further threatening the viability of a two-state solution.

Yehuda Shimon, a 48-year-old lawyer, looks out from a hilltop at the surrounding Palestinian villages. The closest lies less than half a mile away.

“We must make a war with the Arabs,” he said. “Here and Gaza, it’s the same Arabs. If they don’t leave, we must fight with them, and the strongest win.”

Radicals here were already emboldened by the farthest-right government in Israel’s history, which includes settlers such as Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister. But the assault of Oct. 7, when Hamas and allied fighters streamed out of Gaza to attack Israeli communities, killing 1,200 people and taking 240 hostage, has brought them more cash, weapons and political support.

As Israel rains bombs down on Gaza, nearly a dozen Zionist organizations have agitated to return to the Gaza settlements from which they were expelled in 2005 as Israel moved to “disengage” from the enclave. The idea has been dismissed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “unrealistic,” but such views are beginning to enter the Israeli mainstream.

Since Oct. 7, settlers in the West Bank are feeling an increasing sense of impunity for attacks on Palestinians. In the past two months, armed settlers have raided 15 herding communities, destroying houses, tearing down tents and displacing more than 1,200 people. The United States and Britain have imposed visa bans on the settlers implicated in the assaults.

Shimon, who represents some of the alleged perpetrators, said he knows nothing of violence committed by settlers. But he acknowledged that there’s little fear of consequences.

“This is the time,” he said. “This is the time that no one stops you or tells you not to do it.”

Havat Gilad, a cluster of caravans and red-roofed houses, was established in 2002 by two families in buses that were made into homes.

Shimon, like others here, claims that Zar bought vast tracts of land in the area from Palestinians in the 1970s. But he’s vague about the details, claiming no one really owned it, and that it was “very, very cheap.”

Palestinians say it was private land that was stolen. Peace Now, an organization that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calls the settlers’ ownership claim “beyond reason” because it encompasses dozens of plots with hundreds of owners.

But after Palestinian gunmen killed settlement Rabbi Raziel Shevach in 2018, the Israeli government legalized it. Peace Now called it a “cynical exploitation of an abominable murder.”

But the Hamas attack has boosted the settlers’ political and emotional capital, encouraging leaders here to dream big.

“October 7 gave more and more legitimacy to the right to say ‘We can’t coexist with Palestinians, we need to arm ourselves, we need to defend ourselves,'” said Mairav Zonszein, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. Now the actions of fringe settlers are more “vengeful,” she said, more legitimized and bear fewer consequences.

Oct. 7 was a ‘new turning point’

Daniella Weiss, an ultranationalist firebrand who sees the boundaries of the Jewish homeland as stretching from the Jordan River to the Nile River, helped establish Havat Gilad and other illegal outposts. The best way to deal with “the dream of many Arabs to annihilate Israel,” she said, is to build.

“If I want to cope with a cruel enemy,” she said, “the most efficient way is not to shoot him, it’s to build the land of Israel. So when I face a murder, I know that the way to make my life safer is to weaken the enemy.”

She recalls setting up the first hillside caravans at Havat Gilad the evening that Zar was shot.

“This is the way of Zionism, and this will be the way of Zionism.”

Weiss’s first settler organization, Gush Emunim, sprang out of the ashes of the 1967 war. Its aim was to occupy land that Israel had conquered from attacking Arab forces, including the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, so the state would not be forced to give it back.

The 2005 evictions of 8,000 settlers from Gush Katif, a bloc of 17 settlements in Gaza, invigorated the movement, she said. Her current organization, Nachala, which aims to establish illegal outposts, was founded at the time.

She sees Oct. 7 as a “new turning point” in the settler movement.

“Our attitude now is to return to Gaza, it’s a natural thing,” she said. “The minute we have the opportunity to return to the community where we belong, we do it.”

To make that possible, she wants the over 2 million Gazans removed from the enclave. “Arabs cannot continue to live in Gaza.”

Such ideas, Zonszein said, have “moved slowly into a more normalized mainstream.” Settlements Minister Orit Struck called for a return to Gaza before Oct. 7. Israeli soldiers fighting in the enclave have been photographed with banners calling for a settler return. Some have carried back the giant menorah that once topped the synagogue in Netzarim, just south of Gaza City.

A quarter of Jewish Israelis want the settlements in Gaza to be reestablished, according to a survey last month by the Jewish People Policy Institute.

Oded Revivi, the mayor of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, said that even with ideological allies in the government, the approval of new construction in the West Bank will remain constrained because Israel will want to expend all its political capital with the United States on finishing its military campaign in Gaza.

But on wildcat outposts, construction takes place without permissions. Even before Oct. 7, demolitions of illegal Israeli construction had plummeted while budgets to build roads and infrastructure were boosted.

The settlements ministry’s proposal for a fourfold budget increase during Israel’s wartime economy caused uproar this week in the Knesset.

The next generation is ‘more extreme’

There’s no fence separating Havat Gilad from its Palestinian neighbors. Resident rely instead on security cameras and armed guards.

About half the men here are serving in the army, Shimon said, but Palestinians are too afraid to launch an attack here.

“In the beginning we were very, very tough,” he said. “If you were tough in the beginning, everybody knows don’t mess with him.”

One of the original buses, now rusting, is today the meeting space for its girls’ youth movement. A mural shows black rockets flaming against a blue sky. “Going to Gaza,” Shimon explained. Each rocket bears the name of a young member of the community. The words “bomb tribe” are painted in the middle.

Yael Shevach, 38, the widow of the rabbi killed in 2018, said she still believes Palestinians and Jews can live side by side in the West Bank.

But younger community members are more extreme, she said, and Oct. 7 has hardened them. A few of her six children jump on a trampoline outside, hills dotted with Palestinian villages behind them.

“Of course my children become more radical,” she said. “The hatred toward the Palestinians became more active.”

At sundown, Shimon returned to the trailers where he raised his 11 children to light menorahs for Hanukkah. The Jewish festival celebrates the revolt of the Maccabees against Greek rule.

His 21-year-old daughter, Judith, dressed in a troll onesie, clung to his neck as they sat in front of the lit candles to sing.

The message of Hanukkah is particularly poignant this year, she said. “If we don’t fight for ourselves, nobody will do it for us. It’s like what’s happening now in our country.”