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The settlers, Israel’s other ‘army’ in the war against Hamas

The Netanyahu government continues to support violent Jews occupying Palestine despite international sanctions against them, according to the United Nations and human rights organizations

Havat Gilad, Cisjordania
Yehuda Shimon, 49, with two of his 10 children at his home in the illegal settlement of Havat Gilad (West Bank).Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega

“We have an enemy. You have to help us fight the devil, fight Hamas, fight the terrorists. We are not the terrorists.” 49-year-old Ilana Shimon makes that appeal from the kitchen of her prefabricated home in an illegal settlement on a hillside in the West Bank, in Israeli-occupied Palestine as several of her 10 children swarm around her. Under some sort of divine mandate that supposedly bestows these lands on Jews, Ilana and her husband, Yehuda Shimon, a lawyer, draw on messianic and biblical arguments to defend their lives along with 400 others in the settlement of Havat Gilad (Gilad Farm), just outside the city of Nablus.

Since October 7, the day on which the war began with the Hamas attacks resulting in the murder of approximately 1,200 people in Israel, the violence by the settlers, as well as the impunity and support they receive from the state authorities, has multiplied, as denounced by the United Nations and Israeli humanitarian organizations such as B’Tselem and Peace Now. In the past four and a half months, Israeli troops have killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians. The drafting of more than 300,000 Israeli reservists means that many settlers now wear uniforms, such as the 40 from Havat Gilat, which accounts for almost half of the 100 or so adult men in the settlement.

Since 2007, the Shimon family has been among the half a million Jews living illegally in the West Bank (there are about 100,000 more in East Jerusalem). Contrary to the reports of human rights organizations, they deny the attacks and insist, as justification, that acts of violence by Israelis are only carried out in response to those perpetrated by Palestinians.

“There are around 500,000 Jews residing in the Judea and Samaria area (the official Israeli name for the West Bank) and there may be as many as 20 or even 100 Jews participating in these events,” says David Haivri — a resident of the Tapuah settlement for three decades before recently settling in Jerusalem — speaking about the settler attacks. “This is not representative, even if it looks very colorful in the eyes of the media,” he says walking around the area. “I don’t believe that anyone can say that the attacks by Jews against Palestinians can be regarded as a major event compared to the situation in Spain, England, or any other part of the world,” he adds.

General view of the Havat Gilad settlement (West Bank) where around 400 Jewish settlers live on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Nablus.
General view of the Havat Gilad settlement (West Bank) where around 400 Jewish settlers live on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Nablus.Luis de Vega

Israel believes that the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) must be closed down after accusing 12 of its 33,000 employees of involvement in the October 7 attacks. When asked if these 12 are representative, Haivri states that the settler movement “is not an official entity” unlike UNRWA, “a humanitarian organization that receives international funding.”

Settlers regularly enter the fields and uproot the Palestinians’ olive trees or prevent them from picking olives. “That may be true. So what? They cut down ours,” replies Yehuda Shimon, portraying it in the context of the problems that might arise between neighbors, while insisting that coexistence is something envisaged in the holy books, regardless of the religion that each one professes. However, he immediately adds: “The Palestinians are always crying. Look at my house (he says pointing to his prefabricated house) and look at theirs. We give them everything. Roads, electricity, water. And they don’t pay. I pay taxes to the government so they can have all that without paying.”

“Do you see olive trees cut down or burned all around us?” asks Haivri as he points to a field by the road. He refers to the West Bank as the Promised Land, but then adds that Israel won its right to it by winning the “defensive war” against the Arabs in 1967. Haivri draws the conclusion: “A two-state solution? That is not an option. There can’t be two states here, and certainly not if one is a Palestinian entity with an army.” “They can integrate and adapt to Israel’s laws without ceasing to be Muslims or Christians,” he adds.

Ahava Shimon, 19, with one of her nine siblings.
Ahava Shimon, 19, with one of her nine siblings. Luis de Vega

Western sanctions

In an unprecedented move, the United States imposed sanctions in early February against four settlers, who were believed to be extremely violent. A few days later, the United Kingdom did the same with a further four settlers. France announced that it will punish 28, but has not provided the identities. Spain is now planning to take similar measures. The sanctions “seem like a joke to me,” says Yehuda Shimon. “In history, in the Bible, we know that every time someone does something in the name of the devil, they end up paying for it.”

Havat Gilad was established by Moshe Zar, a member of a Jewish Underground unit that carried out an attack on the mayor of the Palestinian city of Nablus in 1980. Israel considers the Jewish Underground to be a terrorist organization. The colony was created in revenge for the murder of his son Gilad Zar in 2001 at the hands of Palestinians on a West Bank road.

“We cannot be stupid. If they come to kill us, we have the right to kill them first,” says Ilana Shimon, while advocating the need to build “bridges of coexistence.” She says that a few days before this interview she went to demonstrate with her children and other settlers in the neighboring Palestinian town of Hawara, which is a constant source of tension and the scene of the latest attacks by Jews on Palestinians. When questioned about the cars that Jewish settlers burn in Hawara, she said she did not know, but that it could be the Palestinians themselves who are doing it.

Ilana Shimon at a vehicle repair shop in Havat Gilad settlement, February 21.
Ilana Shimon at a vehicle repair shop in Havat Gilad settlement, February 21.Luis de Vega

In 2018, the community’s rabbi, Raziel Sevach, was also murdered in an attack similar to that against Gilad Zar. That paved the way for the Israeli government to legalize the Havat Gilad settlement, which, six years later, has still not occurred. “We still don’t receive electricity, water, gas, security, childcare, health care, gardens, roads...” says Ilana Shimon, who is responsible for raising funds to “survive” because, she says, they receive sufficient private contributions from “people who believe in the Bible, who believe that God granted us this land.”

That is why, in 2005, when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to remove the more than 8,000 settlers occupying Gaza, Yehuda Shimon decided to settle there with his family. For three months they lived in a tent on the beach until they had to agree to leave. “We wanted to fight the evacuation,” he explains.

Today, around 100 families live in Havat Gilad, a hill overlooking the Mediterranean coast, from where the cities of Tel Aviv and Netanya can be glimpsed, some twenty kilometers away as the crow flies. Surrounded by Palestinian villages, the settlement is dominated by prefabricated houses, such as the one that houses the Shimon family, and there are still some who live in one of the old buses that, at the beginning of the century, welcomed the first residents.

General view of the Havat Gilad settlement, considered illegal even by the State of Israel itself.
General view of the Havat Gilad settlement, considered illegal even by the State of Israel itself. Luis de Vega

Murder of a Palestinian farmer

Bilal Saleh, a 40-year-old Palestinian farmer, was shot in the chest on the morning of October 28. This special correspondent interviewed several witnesses, including his two sons, that same day after the burial in the West Bank village of Sawiya. All of them agreed, pointing to a settlement from which several armed men came down to the Saleh family’s olive grove without the military — witnesses in the distance — doing anything to stop them.

Yossi Dagan, one of the heads of the settlements in the area where the attack in which Bilal Saleh was killed took place, claimed that the perpetrators acted in self-defense because they were being attacked “by dozens of Hamas members.” “I fully support the fighter who fired,” he added, according to The Jerusalem Post. “It’s ridiculous that settlers kill,” claims attorney Yehuda Shimon, repeatedly denying those facts. An off-duty serviceman was arrested two days later on charges of killing Bilal Saleh. His defense lawyer, Adi Keidar, belongs to Honenu, the same association with which Shimon works and which, according to Peace Now, “offers legal defense to settlers or others who exercise violence.”

The NGO B’Tselem has during the current conflict documented the forced displacement of 151 Palestinian families in the West Bank from their place of residence — a total of 1,009 people, 371 of whom are minors — due to attacks and pressure from settlers, who are accompanied and protected by the military.

Sanctions against individuals from countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom do not reflect the responsibility of the Israeli government for the use of such violence, according to Dror Sadot, spokesman for this Israeli human rights organization. “We are basically dealing with violence by the state, since these settlers are granted impunity,” he says. He understands that it is important to send this message, but he considers the effectiveness of these sanctions against a handful of settlers to be “limited.” According to Sadot, since October 7, there have been more attacks, more violence, more shooting incidents, more settlers have been armed and some of them are now part of the army. The state wants to keep its distance from these acts of violence, but B’Tselem understands that it is a policy marked from above.

“A good year for the settlements, a bad year for Israel,” is how the Israeli organization Peace Now sums up the activity around Jewish settlers last year. Their figures show that “unprecedented conditions” have been created for the rise of this movement in Palestine, in the shadow of the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since December 2022.

In 2023, according to data made public last week, 26 new settlements were created while a total of 21 Palestinian localities were displaced from their land; 12,349 new housing units were announced and authorized in the West Bank; administrative developments for the annexation of more land and a budget of three million Shekels (around $813,500) was authorized for new roads in settlements, which accounts for about 20% of such investments. Following the attack by three Palestinians last Thursday at the gates of one of these settlements, in which an Israeli was killed, the authorities have announced a plan to build 3,000 new homes in the West Bank. The illegal real estate spiral continues unabated.

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