Tamal Sikurel gently touches her protruding belly, filled with the promise of new life and a growing family, and radiates with a smile. Delighted by the prospect of welcoming her sixth child, she proudly states, “It is part of the war effort.” The backdrop to her joy, however, is a school devoid of pupils and homes that once bustled with activity, now standing abandoned. Meanwhile, dry hills sweep down to the Jordan valley.
Sikurel asserts that her strong convictions are rooted in history, declaring, “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.” This 35-year-old woman, along with half a million Jewish settlers in the West Bank, finds herself in the midst of an escalating storm of violence and controversy as Israel and Hamas engage in a prolonged conflict.
Responding to this increasing tension, some settlers are driven by religious and nationalist motives, while others find attraction in the lower cost of living. What was once considered a pioneering way of life has now become remarkably comfortable. Modest settlements have developed into affluent and secure communities, protected by security personnel, monitored by cameras, and enclosed with barbed wire fences.
Human rights organizations in Israel express concern that the settlers, benefiting from the most right-wing government in the country’s history, are exploiting the conflict to further their own agenda, thereby intensifying efforts to displace Palestinians from their homes on the West Bank. The French government censured this as a “policy of terror”, while President Joe Biden, a staunch ally of Israel, characterized the settlers’ attacks as “pouring gasoline” on the existing fires in the Middle East.
Unsurprisingly, faced with mounting criticism, settlers have made public relations efforts to improve their image. Regavim, a pro-settler NGO known for its hostility towards international journalists, invited reporters to visit the south Hebron hills, aiming to provide insight into the conflict. One stop on the tour was Zanuta, a village previously subjected to intense settler violence that forced Palestinians to flee. Denying any concerted effort to displace Palestinians, a Regavim spokesperson labeled the former Zanuta residents as “squatters” who decided to “move on” when payment from the EU ceased.
Settlers contend that they have been vindicated by the October 7th attacks launched by Hamas into southern Israel, claiming the necessity to deal with Hamas in a manner identical to how Gaza is presently being handled. As the conflict escalates, the settlers affirm their role, claiming to be “on the frontline of the war”.
Blaming Palestinians for a violent assault on their existence, Jewish settlers feel a strong desire to exist in faith and safety, juxtaposing their beliefs to the notion that the Jews do not deserve to exist. This rhetoric, though common after the recent attacks, has sparked allegations of racism.
The controversy between Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank has a long-standing history, marked with violence and bloodshed. The settlers advocate for possessing the biblical lands that were promised to the patriarchs, denying the claim that their presence is a significant obstacle to progress towards peace and a catalyst for the ongoing violence in the occupied territories.
Nevertheless, amid conflict and controversy, some settlers are drawn to the tranquility and simplicity of life on the West Bank, cherishing the open spaces, the calm ambiance, and the natural surroundings. For them, the sprawling hills and fertile valleys are worth protecting, even amidst the sprawling conflict.