The Israeli Settlers Attacking Their Palestinian Neighbors

With the world’s focus on Gaza, settlers have used wartime chaos as cover for violence and dispossession.

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The family of Bilal Saleh, who was killed while harvesting olives. Since October 7th, the U.N. has recorded nearly six hundred attacks by settlers in the West Bank. Photographs by Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR for The New Yorker

The sounds of destruction carried through the valley. It was October 28th, and I was standing on a rocky slope in the West Bank with Bashar Ma’amar, a Palestinian who records the aggressions of Israeli settlers. Ma’amar pointed a camera at a group ransacking a house below us. A couple of days before, the settlers had set fire to it; the house’s owner had gone to the police, but they had not intervened. As we watched, one settler kicked at the front door, and another tried to penetrate the charred walls with a board. Others tore a hole in the roof and slipped inside. On the hillside opposite us, three Israeli soldiers and a man with a rifle stood watching. Eventually, the settlers joined the soldiers to walk back to Eli, their settlement, where mothers pushed strollers down tree-lined blocks of red-roofed houses, people played tennis on courts with views of Palestinian farmland, and men and women carrying M16s and Uzis shopped in strip malls.

“Now is the time for them to implement their objectives,” Ma’amar told me. “All the attention is on Gaza.” Ma’amar is forty-one, tall and lanky. He drove his dilapidated car to Qaryut, his village of three thousand people, with winding alleys and olive groves that stretch in every direction. Qaryut, twenty miles north of Ramallah, is in the fertile central highlands of the West Bank, the twenty-two-hundred-square-mile territory that has been occupied by Israel since 1967. After Israel won the Six-Day War, fought against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, it took territory that included the West Bank, which most Israelis refer to as Judea and Samaria. Today, there are roughly half a million settlers in the West Bank, one for every six Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority, which nominally governs the territory, controls security—often with Israeli assistance—only in the urban centers. In the remaining eighty-two per cent of the territory, Israel is in charge. In Qaryut, Ma’amar operates a branch of the Red Crescent and administers message groups that monitor the actions of settlers and of the Israel Defense Forces. He is also a volunteer with B’tselem, an Israeli human-rights group.

One day when I visited Ma’amar, he piled up a dozen cameras on his desk—old mini-D.V. camcorders, point-and-shoot 35-mm.s—some broken by settlers. It was a collection built up during nearly twenty years of documenting settler violence and encroachment onto Palestinian land. “My cameras are my weapons,” he said. “I’m probably the person in Qaryut who has filed the most complaints to the police, to the Supreme Court.” There had been some moments of success. He’d helped a man get back half of the hundred and seventy acres that settlers had seized from him. Mostly, though, his cases went nowhere. “The Israeli legal system doesn’t work for the benefit of Palestinians,” he said.

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His obsession with documentation was inherited from his grandfather Ahmed Odeh, who served for some thirty years as mayor of Qaryut. Ma’amar keeps century-old land deeds and tattered administrative maps, which show that the surrounding settlements were built on private land.

When Ma’amar was born, in 1982, his village was next to only one settlement, Shilo, established on land seized from his grandfather. Eli was founded when Ma’amar was five, taking more land from Qaryut. Eli and Shilo, which each has nearly five thousand residents, subsumed three of Qaryut’s five springs. The village had to buy its water from Mekorot, Israel’s national water company.

The first time that Ma’amar witnessed settler violence was in 1996. It was in the wake of the first election to Prime Minister of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was intent on blocking any progress toward a two-state solution. Shilo took even more land from Qaryut, to make a vineyard. The village staged a protest, which Ma’amar filmed. The Army and settlers rushed in, firing shots into the air, and settlers beat people and tried to take cameras from anyone documenting the scene. An Israeli court ruled that the land should be returned to Qaryut, but Ma’amar said that settlers continued to attack people who approached, so the land was effectively lost.

In the years that followed, settlers put up tents, then mobile homes, on hilltops. Settlements are mostly considered illegal under international law, but these outposts were illegal even under Israeli law. Still, the government did little to dissuade the hilltop settlers, who viewed themselves as pioneers. The outposts were quickly connected to larger settlements by water systems, power lines, and paved roads. In time, a corridor of settlement took shape, slicing across the West Bank until the map looked more and more like the one envisioned by many settlers and political leaders, in which Palestinians would live in small and disconnected territories within an expanded Israel. Qaryut sat right in the corridor’s path; there were now eight official settlements and at least eleven smaller outposts in a five-mile radius of the village. “Without international and legal pressure on the Israelis, Qaryut will disappear,” Ma’amar said.

In November, 2022, Netanyahu won reëlection for the sixth time. To form a governing coalition, he allied with leaders of far-right parties, including Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who advocate for annexing the West Bank. Since then, the situation there has grown dramatically worse. In the first nine months of 2023, Ma’amar filed about seventy police reports of settler violence. In February, while he was driving an ambulance to pick up people injured in an attack, settlers smashed his windows and tried to burn the vehicle. In June, Palestinian gunmen killed four settlers near Eli; the next day, hundreds of settlers descended on Turmus Aya, a nearby village, shooting residents and burning cars and houses, some with people inside. By September, 2023, the United Nations was documenting around three settler-related incidents each day, the highest since it had started tracking the trend, in 2006, and eleven hundred Palestinians in the West Bank had been displaced.

Since October 7th, when Hamas-led fighters broke through the fence on Gaza’s border with Israel and killed some twelve hundred people and took some two hundred and fifty hostages, attacks near Qaryut have become routine. Settlers have burned cars and houses, blockaded roads, damaged electricity networks, seized farmland, severed irrigation lines, attacked people in their fields and olive groves, and killed, all without repercussion. Ma’amar told me that a thousand acres had been cut off from Qaryut. The U.N. has recorded five hundred and seventy-three attacks by settlers in the West Bank since the war began, with Israeli forces accompanying them half the time. At least nine people have been killed by settlers, and three hundred and eighty-two have been killed by Israeli forces. Five Israelis have been killed in the West Bank, at least one of whom was a civilian.

On October 9th, settlers sent a picture on Facebook to people in Qusra, a few miles from Qaryut, of masked men holding axes, clubs, a gas can, and a chainsaw, with text that read, “To all the rats in the sewers of Qusra village, we are waiting for you and we will not feel sorry for you. The day of revenge is coming.” Two days later, at the edge of the village, settlers lit utility poles on fire and tried to break into a house. For a half hour, a family huddled inside; then young men from the village arrived and threw rocks at the Israelis. Ma’amar drove over in his ambulance. At that point, the settlers started shooting. A man handed Ma’amar a six-year-old girl who had been shot. As the man walked away, he was shot and killed. When Ma’amar sped off, he said, settlers fired on his ambulance. Three Palestinians were killed, one of them the son of a man who had been killed by settlers in 2017. Then the Israeli Army stormed the village and killed a thirteen-year-old boy.

The next day, Hani Odeh, the mayor of Qusra, arranged for a procession to transport the bodies from the hospital to the village. Ma’amar took one of them in his ambulance. The I.D.F. dictated the route, then directed mourners to change course to avoid settlers. But dozens of settlers blocked the road and stoned the procession anyway. “I got out and talked to the Israeli commander, begging him to make the settlers leave,” Odeh said. “He told me to turn around.” The settlers killed a sixty-two-year-old man and his twenty-five-year-old son.

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Bashar Ma’amar, a Palestinian activist, films as Israeli settlers take over a spring that supplied water to his village of Qaryut.

“They can’t just continue to unleash the settlers on us like that,” Odeh told me. “My generation has always tried to reason with our youth, but they can no longer take it, so what am I to do? People like me, who advocated for peace their whole lives—we are not respected anymore. They say what did Abu Mazen”—Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority—“ever do for us? And they’re right. He keeps asking people to protest peacefully. Peacefully? There’s nothing peaceful about the situation we’re in.”

On October 29th, settlers showed up at one of Qaryut’s two remaining springs. They hung an Israeli flag and, with soldiers present, demolished one of the large concrete water basins that villagers had been using for irrigation for generations. Then the Army closed Qaryut’s access road to the spring. The road separated Shilo and Eli, and Ma’amar guessed that the aim of the settlers and the Army was to connect the two settlements.

For the next couple of weeks, settlers came to the spring frequently, accompanied by soldiers. Some wore shirts with the logo of Artzenu (“Our Land”), a subsidiary of a government-funded organization which is dedicated to farming land in the West Bank before “non-Jewish entities” do. (A spokesperson for Artzenu said, “Not everyone who wears the shirt in their free time represents the organization’s values.”) One day, Ma’amar filmed two soldiers in sniper costumes on the hillside above the spring and young settlers burning tires on the access road. One soldier, lying prone with his rifle balanced on a tripod, aimed straight at Ma’amar.

That day, I went down to the spring with Ariel Elmaliach, the mayor of Eli. Around ten young men and boys were working to turn one of the concrete basins into a swimming pool. “Come in another week with shorts and you can enjoy,” Elmaliach told me.

He asked the group why they were doing this work.

“To take more room around the settlement,” a boy of about fifteen said.

“For our homeland,” Nadav Levy, a bearded man in his early twenties, said. He added that he didn’t understand why people in Qaryut were upset about their project: “From my perspective, all of this is our land.”

Ory Shimon, twenty, said he felt that Israel was being unfairly scrutinized: “America came with ships and killed all the Indians and made them slaves. It’s terrible, but now America doesn’t say, ‘We’re sorry, take the land back.’ ”

Elmaliach told me I was not allowed to take pictures, but then reconsidered. “Let’s do a deal,” he said. “If you write in your media that the Jews always take a place and they make it better, I give you permission to take a picture.” He picked up a couple of discarded bottles. “See, this is Arabs,” he said.

The spring, Elmaliach said, belonged to them, not to Qaryut. I showed him a map from the Civil Administration, Israel’s governing body in the West Bank, showing that the spring was well outside settlement boundaries. Eventually, he said, “I will give you a real answer. If you are coming to a new land, and you are now the owner of that land, then you put in that land the rules that you want.”

In February, 2023, Netanyahu appointed Smotrich, the finance minister and the head of the Religious Zionist Party, to a governmental position that granted him sweeping powers over West Bank settlements. In 2005, Smotrich had been arrested as part of a small group in possession of seven hundred litres of fuel. The former deputy head of Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security agency, accused him of plotting to blow up cars on a highway to protest Israel’s withdrawal from settlements in Gaza. (Smotrich denied the allegation and wasn’t charged with a crime.) Now Smotrich had the authority to legalize unauthorized outposts, to prevent enforcement against illegal Jewish construction, to thwart Palestinian development projects, and to allocate land to settlers.

Around the time of Smotrich’s appointment, a Palestinian gunman shot and killed two settlers. Smotrich said that the Army should “strike the cities of terror and its instigators without mercy, with tanks and helicopters.” Israel, he added, should act “in a way that conveys that the master of the house has gone crazy.” While the Army stood by, hundreds of settlers rampaged through Hawara, a village south of Nablus, killing one person and injuring about a hundred, and burning some thirty homes and a hundred cars. It was the worst outbreak of settler violence in decades. (The I.D.F. did not respond to a request for comment.)

Smotrich, who lives in a settlement, has become one of the most prominent settler ideologists. In 2017, he published his “Decisive Plan” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first step, he wrote, was to make the “ambition for a Jewish State from the river to the sea . . . an accomplished fact” by “establishing new cities and settlements deep inside the territory and bringing hundreds of thousands of additional settlers to live there.” Once “victory by settlement” was accomplished, Smotrich continued, Palestinians would have two options: stay in Israel, without the right to vote in national elections, or emigrate. “Zionism,” he wrote, “was built based on population exchange e.g. the mass Aliyah of Jews from Arab countries and Europe to the Land of Israel, willingly or not, and the exit of masses of Arabs who lived here, willingly or not, to the surrounding Arab areas. This historic pattern seems to require culmination.”

Plans for expulsion go back to 1937, when Britain proposed the partition of Palestine into two states and the transfer of about two hundred thousand Arabs out of territory slated for the Jewish state. Zionist pioneers attempted to expand their territory by building settlements outside the proposed boundary. David Ben-Gurion, the future Prime Minister of Israel, wrote, in a letter to his sixteen-year-old son about settling the Negev Desert, “We must expel the Arabs and take their place.” In the end, Ben-Gurion agreed to a U.N. partition plan that did not call for the expulsion of Arabs from Gaza and the West Bank, but he immediately began taking tactical steps toward expanding the territory. He and other leaders devised a military strategy called Plan Dalet, which aimed to “gain control of the areas of the Hebrew state” and “the areas of Jewish settlement . . . located outside the borders” through “operations against enemy population centers,” “control of frontline enemy positions,” and the “destruction of villages.” Should resistance be met, “the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.” The Haganah (the predecessor to the I.D.F.), destroyed Palestinian villages and carried out massacres. Three hundred thousand Arabs were expelled or fled before the British withdrew, in May, 1948. Then Israel declared independence, Egypt and Syria invaded the territory, and another four hundred thousand Arabs were driven out. By 1949, about eighty per cent of the Arab population had been removed from the territory claimed by Israel, now larger than what the U.N. partition plan—which was never implemented—had outlined, and hundreds of villages had been erased. Palestinians remember this as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”

Smotrich’s desire to claim all of Palestine for Israel was held by many people in 1948, but his belief that such colonization is a divine commandment was marginal. Zionism was largely a secular movement, and most Orthodox Jews considered it a rebellion against God: if he had exiled the Israelites, then only he could determine when the punishment should end. Smotrich, like a third of West Bank settlers today, follows the teachings of a rabbi named Tzvi Yehuda Kook, who preached that Jews should play an active role in bringing about God’s forgiveness by gaining possession of the entirety of the Biblical Land of Israel. By establishing a state, secular Jews—“good sinners,” he called them—had unwittingly created a stepping stone to the “foundation of the throne of God in the world.” When Israel occupied the West Bank, in 1967, Kook’s devotees believed that it was a miracle.

Government officials disagreed about what to do with the West Bank. Maximalists, like Yigal Allon, a former special-forces commander, had been stopped short of taking the territory before borders were established, in 1949, and wanted to finish the job; other officials worried that incorporating nine hundred thousand Palestinians into Israel would upend the country’s Jewish majority. Levi Eshkol, the Prime Minister at the time, said, “We got a lovely dowry. The trouble is that the dowry comes with the wife.” Allon proposed a compromise: annex the least populated regions—a third of the territory—and give the rest back to Jordan. He proposed establishing settlements until the annexation was complete.

The difficulty was finding people to live in them: the younger generation of secular Israelis didn’t have the nostalgia for pioneering that older Zionists did. But Kook’s followers were more eager. As the government deliberated, Kookists announced that they were settling in Hebron. Allon, a one-time socialist, made common cause with the right-wing settlers, immediately guaranteeing them jobs and trying to procure weapons for them. Then he persuaded the Cabinet to grant permission for a settlement.

The Kookists learned an important lesson: if they took direct action and found sympathetic officials, the state would follow. They formed a movement, Gush Emunim, which tried to establish settlements on the densely populated mountain ridge south of Nablus, where Qaryut is situated. Yet the government, which, in accordance with Allon’s plan, had begun building settlements in less populated areas, repeatedly evicted them.

In 1977, the Labor Party, which had held power since the founding of the state, was defeated by the Likud Party. Like Gush Emunim, Likud advocated for complete Israeli sovereignty “between the Sea and the Jordan.” The government started building settlements throughout the West Bank, and put them under the management of Gush Emunim, which it funded. The state encouraged Israelis to move in, offering housing subsidies, lower income tax, and state grants for businesses. By the early nineties, there were some hundred thousand Israelis living in a hundred and twenty settlements in the West Bank.

On October 28, 2023, Bilal Saleh woke early to prepare for the olive harvest in the village of al-Sawiya. He knew it was risky. A couple of days earlier, farmers had returned from their olive groves in the nearby village of Deir Istiya to find flyers on their cars that read, “You wanted war, now wait for the great Nakba. . . . This is your last chance to escape to Jordan in an orderly fashion before we forcibly expel you from our holy lands, which were given to us by God.” Since October 7th, messages in settler chat groups had portrayed olive pickers as undercover Hamas operatives and as Nazis. Elmaliach, the mayor of Eli, which is a mile and a half from al-Sawiya, sent around a sign-up sheet calling for the “full mobilization” of his residents “to stand up to the Arabs who try to harvest around our settlements.”

Saleh, who was forty, kept his opinions to himself and avoided protests. But the land had been in his family for generations. He’d recently left his job at a hotel in Tel Aviv and had been selling herbs on the streets of Ramallah. Without the olive harvest, he’d be stretched thin. He and his friends and relatives chose a Saturday to pick olives, because it was the Jewish Sabbath, a day when the Orthodox settlers were likely to be in synagogue or resting.

Saleh loaded up his family’s donkey and walked with his wife and kids through their village, across from the road where Israelis-only buses took settlers to their jobs, and down to their plot of trees. The settlement of Rehelim looked down on them from less than half a mile away. They put a tarp down under a tree and started picking.

At around 10:30 a.m., Saleh’s friend Sami Kafineh was driving back to al-Sawiya from Nablus. Just before he reached the village, he noticed four men, dressed in white, walking from Rehelim toward the olive grove. He pulled over and shouted that settlers were approaching.

People who were in the grove told me that, as soon as Bilal Saleh realized that the settlers were coming, he hurried his wife and children to safety, leaving their belongings behind. As they walked to the road, Saleh, realizing he’d left his phone behind, turned back. He returned to the plot, picked up his phone, and was shot.

Kafineh was still on the road above. As soon as he heard the rifle crack, he started filming. The four settlers were in a clearing; one had an M16 and was walking along the edge of the terraced grove of olive trees. The settler fired again, and walked away. A video shows Saleh lying in the dirt, his chest and mouth bloody.

Then settlers rewrote the story. In a statement, Yossi Dagan, the head of the settlers’ regional council whose area of authority includes Rehelim, said that a combat soldier on leave had been “attacked by tens of Hamasniks.” The harvest around Israeli settlements had to be stopped, he said, because it was “being used as a platform for terrorism.” Settlers later shared an image from Saleh’s funeral, in which his brother, Hisham, is waving a Hamas flag. Shortly afterward, Israeli police arrested Hisham. Polls show that support for Hamas in the West Bank, where dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority is widespread, has risen from twelve per cent to forty-four per cent in recent months. Seventy-two per cent of Palestinians polled also said that they thought the October 7th attack was “correct.” (Ninety-four per cent of Israelis think that the I.D.F. is using either an appropriate or an insufficient amount of force in Gaza.)

“We don’t have any hope,” Bilal’s cousin Hazem Saleh told me. He pointed toward some new houses in the village. Their owners didn’t intend for them “to be demolished or bombed,” he said. “They are not calling for fighting, or killing, or war. But when they are afraid to go out, when they don’t have the minimum standard of living, when they are pressured, their reaction will be the same as the action.”

Hisham Saleh spent three months in jail, without charges, for waving the Hamas flag. The settler who shot Bilal was arrested, and released a few days later. “We are happy that the court decided from the beginning that that was self-defense,” his lawyer, Nati Rom, told me. The judge had cited the events of October 7th, writing, “The vigilance to which we are commanded by the blood of our brothers and sisters who fell for the sanctity of the land and the defense of the homeland is a real obligation.”

Rom said that, to his knowledge, no other settlers had faced charges since October 7th. Settler violence was “fake news,” he said.

Saleh’s shooter was back in the Army, so I visited one of his neighbors, a forty-six-year-old woman named Reuma Harari. At the gate of Rehelim, soldiers took my passport, then security escorted me to Harari’s house. Her back yard was a suburban idyll: a swing set on an AstroTurf lawn, an oak tree, a small dog; Tel Aviv was only forty minutes away, if the traffic was light. She offered me a seat under an olive tree. “Ironic,” she said, chuckling.

Harari was eager to tell me about the origin of her settlement. “It’s not a victim story,” she said. “It’s just the opposite.” In 1991, settlers were on a bus to Tel Aviv to protest peace talks taking place in Madrid. Palestinians attacked the bus, killing the driver and a settler from Shilo named Rachel Drouk. After Drouk’s funeral, twenty-five women set up a mourning tent on the spot of the killing. After three weeks, they issued their Feminist Manifesto. “We remain at this site demanding to found a settlement, for this is the only Zionist response to this criminal murder,” it read. Under Army protection, the settlers seized land belonging to Saleh’s village, and installed mobile homes on it.

Two years later, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, agreed on the first stage of the Oslo Accords. Israel and the P.L.O. recognized each other, and the Palestinians gained limited autonomy in Gaza and some of the West Bank, under the administration of the newly created Palestinian Authority. But major issues—the future of Jerusalem, the ability of Palestinian refugees to return, the settlements, and the border—were left for a final agreement to be made in five years’ time. That agreement never came to pass, and the hope for a two-state solution has steadily vanished.

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Settler youths at the Qaryut spring.

Under international pressure, the government mostly stopped building new settlements, but in 1998, ahead of the final status talks for Oslo, Ariel Sharon, then the foreign minister, urged settlers to occupy territory themselves. On the radio, he said they should “run, grab more hills, expand the territory. Everything that’s grabbed will be in our hands. Everything we don’t grab will be in their hands.” In the next nine years, roughly a hundred illegal outposts were created.

In 2001, during the second intifada, a popular Palestinian uprising against the occupation, Harari and her family decided to move from Jerusalem to Rehelim. She had asked herself, “What can I do for this country?” She knew that, wherever settlers go, “the Army will come,” she said. “Zionism for me is dreaming and doing.” Four years later, a government report revealed that the World Zionist Organization and a number of ministries had been secretly diverting millions of dollars to settler outposts with the active collusion of the military and the police. “It seems that the lawbreaking has become institutionalized,” the report said. The government declared that such outposts would be evacuated, but in the twenty-tens Netanyahu retroactively legalized many of them, including Rehelim.

Harari said that Rehelim’s stance toward its Palestinian neighbors had always been “If you live peace and quiet, we will live peace and quiet.”

When I mentioned the various attacks perpetrated by inhabitants of her settlement through the years, Harari responded with examples of settlers killed in other parts of the West Bank, or by discussing October 7th. “My neighbors, if they have the ability, will come and butcher me in my bed,” she said. She likened the Hamas attacks to Auschwitz, but she also said that they brought her a “shred of joy,” because “now we earned back our unity. Now it’s like ’48 again.”

Harari could understand why Palestinians might resent settlers. “Israel is an occupied territory from the river to the sea,” she said. If she were Palestinian, she went on, she “would probably think we are not supposed to be here and we should go.” She sometimes asked herself, “Is it worthwhile? Are the kids suffering? Is it normal?” Then she recovered. “We are not going anywhere,” she said. “ ‘Homeland’ is not a figure of speech.”

Ten miles east of Rehelim, the olive groves and crowded settlements and Palestinian villages give way to the caramel-colored expanse of the Jordan Valley. The valley stretches six miles wide, from the Jordan River to the hills of the central highlands, and fifty miles long, from the Dead Sea to the Israeli city of Beit She’an. Israel has eyed the region for annexation since Allon’s plan of 1967. Sparsely populated, it makes up about a quarter of the West Bank’s landmass. Since 2012, Israel has been building what Dror Etkes, a longtime authority on settlements, called its “biggest and most expensive infrastructure project” in the West Bank, piping water from Jerusalem to settlers’ date plantations throughout the valley. “They are building a project that costs a fortune,” Etkes said. “From their point of view, they are going to be here forever.” Any Jewish family that moves to the Jordan Valley is granted twenty acres of agricultural land.

The residents of the valley’s more than twenty settlements are a mix of Orthodox Jews and the secular descendants of early Labor Party settlers. In the “eco settlement” of Rotem, businesses offer acupuncture, natural cosmetics, and “holistic therapy.” People live in yurts, buildings made from hemp, and converted vehicles. One day, I sat under a thatched roof at a café where barefoot waitresses served vegan meals. Yet, as in other parts of the West Bank, violence is woven into the fabric of life. A family posed for a photograph looking over the valley, the man raising an M16 in the air. A small Palestinian sheepherding community sat on the valley floor. Rotem settlers had recently been showing up in the night, demanding that the Palestinians evacuate.

Many of the sixty-five thousand Palestinians in the Jordan Valley are the descendants of Bedouins who fled what is now Israel in 1948. Israel has long restricted their access to water and demolished their buildings. In the five months before October 7th, hundreds of Palestinians, the residents of three communities, left. Their exodus was prompted by a relatively new type of settler—the Orthodox Jewish shepherd.

In the northern part of the valley, I visited Moshe and Moriah Sharvit, whose sheep farm doubled as a bed-and-breakfast, with offerings including air-conditioned Bedouin-style tents and talks about “Zionism and the importance of settling on farms and the seizure of land.”

Moriah, who is twenty-eight, wore a daisy-print dress and a dark-green head scarf, and had a blond infant strapped to her back. Mountains rose in the west, and on the eastern horizon, beyond Palestinian villages, the Jordan Highlands were outlined faintly. All this, she believed, was given to her by God.

Moriah was born in New Jersey and grew up in West Bank settlements. After she and Moshe married, at nineteen, they wanted a different life. The settlements, with their fences, cameras, and security, were like “ghettos,” Moriah said. She invited me into their mobile home. A couple of M16s sat on a woodstove. Moshe, an olive-skinned man with a short black beard, ate in the kitchen. I recognized him. Israeli anti-occupation activists had documented him dispersing Palestinians’ sheep with his A.T.V., sending his dogs after them, and following with a drone.

Moshe had had a vineyard and an olive grove, Moriah told me, but that didn’t allow for the control of much land, so he turned to sheepherding. “When you have sheep, you go here, you go there, wherever there is food to graze,” she said. “You can protect more land.”

Moriah and Moshe set up the outpost in 2020. “It’s not like we bought the land from someone,” she said. “It doesn’t belong to us.” Yet she described their mission as preventing land theft. She pointed through a window toward some Palestinian farmhouses a half mile away. “All those houses that you see over there are Arabs who came from A land to C land and stole the land,” she said. “If we weren’t here right now, they would be here.”

The Oslo Accords sorted the West Bank into three areas, A, B, and C. Palestinian cities were designated Area A and put under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. The main villages—Area B—were left under Palestinian civilian administration, with Israel in charge of security. Together, Areas A and B make up forty per cent of the West Bank, but they are broken into a hundred and sixty-five islands. The sea they float in—Area C—remains under full Israeli control and includes not only settlements but also most of the West Bank’s agricultural land. The accords said that Area C, now home to half a million settlers and some three hundred thousand Palestinians, was to be “gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction,” but Israel has increasingly treated it as its own.

Israel requires Palestinians to obtain permits for any new construction in Area C, but it has rejected ninety-eight per cent of applications. Unpermitted structures are regularly demolished by the military—yet settlers believe that the government doesn’t do enough. Regavim, an organization co-founded by Bezalel Smotrich, takes aerial photographs of the West Bank twice a year in order to identify unpermitted structures, and it sues the government if it doesn’t demolish them. Naomi Kahn, Regavim’s international director, told me, “Area C should be annexed.” A poll from 2020 showed that half of Israelis supported this idea.

The sheepherding strategy started to take hold around 2018, pioneered by a settler organization called Amana. At a 2021 conference titled “The Battle for State Lands,” Amana’s secretary-general, Ze’ev Hever, a convicted member of the Jewish Underground terrorist organization, explained that traditional settlements had been an inefficient way to seize land. “It took us more than fifty years to get a hundred square kilometres,” he said. Sheep farms, on the other hand, control “more than double the area of built-up settlements.”

Avi Naim, the former director general of the Ministry of Settlement Affairs, said that herding outposts were helping “prevent Palestinian invasions” of Area C: “You take people who believe in that goal as a pioneering mission, and let them spearhead the work to keep control of land reserves.” By Dror Etkes’s count, there are now about ninety herding outposts in the West Bank. He estimated that together they control some hundred and thirty-five square miles, about ten per cent of Area C.

All such outposts are considered illegal under Israeli law, but Moriah said that she and Moshe had received a great deal of assistance from the state. They had “a gazillion meetings,” she said, with the Civil Administration, the Army, the Jordan Valley regional council, and other government bodies. Amana connected them to running water.

“Moriah!” Moshe shouted from the kitchen. He told her to be careful what she said.

Before the 2019 elections, Netanyahu announced a plan to annex twenty-two per cent of the West Bank, most of it in Area C, including the majority of the Jordan Valley. The Sharvits established their outpost inside the area slated for annexation, which has not yet occurred.

“I believe that everything is ours—but there is the law,” Moriah said. “We go by the law and what we’re allowed and what we’re not allowed.” Buildings on their outpost had been under demolition orders for two years, but Moriah said that no one had pressured them to leave: “Israel understands—either we’re here or the land’s gonna be taken away.”

On the living-room wall, a monitor displayed live footage from cameras that surveilled the surrounding area. Their farm acted as “eyes” for the Army, Moriah told me. “We could report on illegal buildings, on illegal hunting. . . . We work together.” On the screen, the angle of one of the cameras changed; Moriah said that it, like cameras at other outposts in the valley, was controlled by a soldier at a command center.

After October 7th, an Army unit stayed at their outpost for a month. Moriah said the Army told them that each herding outpost needed at least three long rifles, so it gave her an M16. “They are giving them out like crazy,” she said. The Army has distributed around seven thousand weapons to settlers since October 7th, on top of the ten thousand that the Ministry of National Security ordered be handed out to Jews across Israel and the West Bank. Like some fifty-five hundred other settlers, Moshe and his brother David were drafted into the Army’s “regional defense” battalions, the ranks of which have increased fivefold since the war began.

Moriah said that their issue wasn’t just with Hamas but with Palestinians in general. They weren’t “regular people,” she said. Violence was in “their DNA.” The October 7th attacks happened because Israelis “were too nice,” she said. “I think we need to do what we need to do to make this stop. I think we need to give an alternative to the Arabs who live here. . . . There’s Jordan, there’s Egypt, there’s Syria.”

Moriah drove me down a dirt road to the land below the outpost, where Palestinians grew wheat and potatoes. She pointed to some houses. “This over here—all on C land,” she said. (According to Civil Administration maps, most of the houses were in Area B.) Shortly after October 7th, she said, a curious thing had happened: “We saw everyone just leaving.” She continued driving down the dirt road. “They left,” she said. “They all left.”

Five days later, I visited David Elhayani, the governor of the Jordan Valley regional council. There are six such elected councils in the West Bank that provide services to settlers. Despite being outside Israel, they fall under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior.

Elhayani thought that Netanyahu had not been decisive enough in annexing territory. “We don’t have leadership anymore in this country,” Elhayani told me. If annexation went for a vote, he said, he was confident that two-thirds of the Knesset would approve it.

In the meantime, he was grateful that settler shepherds like Moshe Sharvit were “taking care of the area.” When I asked why the demolition orders on the Sharvits’ property hadn’t been carried out, he replied, “It’s not my job.”

Elhayani said that, if he could claim territory for Israel, he would do it, “even if it’s not legal.” He added, “The fight of 1948 is the same fight [today] in all of Judea and Samaria”—the fight over land. “You know what homa u’migdal is?” he asked.

It means “wall and tower.” During British rule, the government restricted the establishment of Jewish settlements, but during the 1936-39 Arab revolt more than fifty of them were founded, in order to claim territory for a future state. The British let them stand, given an Ottoman law that said authorities could not demolish a structure once a roof had been constructed. The Zionists “came at night, made a wall, a tower, and said, ‘We are here,’ ” Elhayani said. The herding outposts, he noted, “are the same.”

I told Elhayani that I had gone with some Palestinians to their now empty houses, near the Sharvits’ outpost. An elderly man told me that, a few days after October 7th, Moshe had beaten him, ransacked his home, and told him to leave. Others said he’d threatened to kill them. (Moriah Sharvit said, “Nobody on this farm has committed any offense.”) Twelve families had evacuated.

“They are lying,” Elhayani said.

“I can take you right now,” I said.

“I don’t believe you.”

“I’ll show you.”

“I don’t want you to show me.”

The next day, the photographer Tanya Habjouqa and I went to Wadi al-Seeq, a recently depopulated community in the hills above the Jordan Valley. The sun slowly sank, lighting up the skeletons of shacks clustered in the shallow valley. Forty-odd families had lived here since the nineties, but the last of them had fled a month before. Inside a school, overturned desks lay on the floor; lessons remained on the whiteboards.

As we drove down a gravel road, a pickup truck blocked our path. A suntanned man with a long ginger-brown beard and sidelocks stepped out. It was Neria Ben-Pazi, a settler shepherd who presided over a handful of outposts and had organized the expulsion of the Palestinian families. I had tried multiple times to interview Ben-Pazi, but he never responded. When settler shepherds appear, their friends are often close behind, so I turned the car around and we left.

Ben-Pazi grew up in Kohav HaShahar, six miles north of Wadi al-Seeq. By 2015, he had founded a rugged outpost called Baladim nearby. Shin Bet considered it a center of terrorism; some of its residents were dedicated to bringing down the state of Israel and replacing it with the Kingdom of Judea. At least two of them have been convicted of arson-related hate crimes, including the firebombing of a Palestinian home, in 2015, which killed an eighteen-month-old baby and his parents. After that attack, Baladim was evacuated by the Army. Ben-Pazi was arrested for establishing the outpost in a military zone, but he was soon released. Then the encampment was reëstablished.

In 2019, after Netanyahu announced his plan to annex part of the West Bank, Ben-Pazi’s relationship with the government changed. Within weeks, he established a new herding outpost outside Rimonim, a secular settlement that likely fell within the area targeted for annexation. A Civil Administration document shows that Ben-Pazi was allocated a hundred-and-thirty-five-acre plot. He was also given funds by the Ministry of Agriculture to pay for people to guard the outpost. Before long, Ben-Pazi and his men had taken over two square miles of Palestinian land. According to a settler publication, senior I.D.F. officers and political figures, including Yoav Gallant, the defense minister, regularly visited his farm.

One of the managers of Rimonim, a tattooed, motorcycle-riding secular man named Oz Shraibom, told me, “Those fanatic religious people are crazy. They come to fight.” Since October 7th, “there are people who think this is the time to make everything happen.” But, he added, “they are keeping the Arabs away. It’s really convenient for me.”

Ben-Pazi had established his Wadi al-Seeq outpost in February, 2023, just after Netanyahu gave Smotrich jurisdiction over the Civil Administration and the West Bank settlers. Almost immediately, young settlers started to graze their livestock on Palestinian fields. Before long, nearly all of Wadi al-Seeq’s wells were in the hands of the settlers, so the Palestinians had to truck in water. Unable to access their farmland safely, they stopped planting. They could no longer graze their animals in most of the surrounding hills, so they had to buy feed. A few families left.

A man I’ll call Suheil, whose home was just a few hundred yards from the outpost, told me that settlers had started to come by his house at night. One appeared in his doorway early one morning, and stared at him and his family as they slept. In August, settlers near the village tried to steal the sheep of two young men. Men from the village ran out to defend them, and a fight ensued. Dozens of police officers and soldiers arrived, confiscating three cars and arresting three Palestinians.

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The school in Wadi al-Seeq, where some forty Palestinian families lived until recently.

That day, a video circulated on social media showing Suheil pleading with Ben-Pazi. A settler WhatsApp channel reposted the video, calling it the “last gasp” of the Palestinian community and referring cryptically to “the Deir Yassin effect.” (Deir Yassin was the site of the most notorious massacre of Palestinians in 1948; for many people, it represents the use of violence to instigate a broader exodus.) Arabs in Wadi al-Seeq, the WhatsApp channel said, were being “forced to leave their encampments because they cannot hold out against the Jews.”

The families remaining in Wadi al-Seeq asked Israeli activists to stay in the village, hoping that their presence might deter the settlers. The Palestinian Authority’s Wall and Settlements Resistance Commission organized Palestinian volunteers to stay as well. In charge was Mohammed Matar, better known as Abu Hassan, a forty-six-year-old activist turned official with a long history of civil disobedience against the occupation forces.

After October 7th, settlers started to drive through Wadi al-Seeq more often, now dressed in uniform and carrying assault rifles. They set up impromptu checkpoints at the entrance to the village, beat people, stole their phones, and visited families in their houses at night.

Most of the villagers decided that they couldn’t stay. On October 12th, they started piling onto trucks mattresses, sheep troughs, and the tin roofs of their homes. That morning, six pickup trucks of settlers arrived. Abu Hassan, his colleague Mohammed Khaled, five Israeli activists, and a number of villagers stayed behind; they called the Army to ask for help. The settlers tied up Abu Hassan and Khaled and started beating them. At one point, the two men recalled, a Civil Administration officer arrived. After talking to the settlers, he started to leave.

“Where are you going?” Abu Hassan asked.

“These men are Army,” the officer said, pointing to the men who had been beating them.

Three Israeli activists were hiding with a Palestinian family in a partially dismantled shack. They saw Ben-Pazi talking urgently on his phone; then an Army van arrived. Soldiers from the Desert Frontier unit emerged, largely youths recruited from shepherd outposts.

After the activists emerged, a soldier punched one of them in the face; they were zip-tied, and their phones and cameras were taken away. “Why aren’t you in Gaza!” another soldier shouted. “You are under arrest for helping the enemy during war.” The soldiers left them in another shack, guarded by settlers, and drove over to where Abu Hassan and Mohammed Khaled were being held.

While Abu Hassan was lying face down, one of the settlers pulled him up by the hair. “Do you remember me?” he asked. “I’m the shepherd from Biddya, near Salfit. A couple of months ago, you staged a protest there.”

“That wasn’t me,” Abu Hassan said.

He later identified the man as Eden Levi, who was establishing a chain of herding outposts with the aim, he told a settler publication last summer, of “creating an important territorial continuity in the entire region of Western Samaria.” Last February, Arabic media published a photograph of Levi, reporting that residents near his outposts said that he had shot and killed a twenty-seven-year-old Palestinian. (Levi could not be reached for comment.) According to Haaretz, the Israeli police had interviewed no witnesses.

Abu Hassan and Khaled said they were tortured for hours—beaten with poles, burned with cigarettes, sexually assaulted, urinated on, forced to eat sheep dung. Someone took a picture of them, stripped to their underwear, which was posted on Facebook. “Terrorists tried to infiltrate the Ben-Pazi farm near Kochav Hashachar,” the post read. “Our forces seized the terrorists.” They spent two days in the hospital.

Shortly after Wadi al-Seeq was depopulated, a new gravel road to Ben-Pazi’s outpost was laid down. The Israeli police have not interviewed any of the Palestinians or Israeli activists who were there. Eden Levi has since led another raid near his outpost, in which settlers burned cars and shot Palestinians, killing one.

On December 5th, the U.S. State Department announced that it was imposing visa restrictions on “extremist settlers” who have committed acts of violence or have restricted civilians’ access to basic necessities. The I.D.F. issued a restraining order barring Ben-Pazi from the West Bank, with the exception of the Ariel settlement, for three months. In an appeal, his lawyer, Nati Rom, wrote that Ben-Pazi’s “extensive ties with the security forces are the best evidence that there is no place for the order to be issued.”

In apparent defiance of the order, Ben-Pazi hosted senior rabbis and hundreds of worshippers at his Wadi al-Seeq outpost for Hanukkah. Amichai Eliyahu, the minister of heritage, who a month earlier had said that the government should consider dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza, spent the night at the outpost. (He later claimed that the comment was “metaphorical.”) Ben-Pazi, Eliyahu tweeted, was “the first line of defense against the enemy.”

On February 1st, President Biden ordered financial sanctions against four Israeli settlers. Abu Hassan said that the political pressure was important, but that sanctions should “include the political and financial institutions that support [the settlers], as well as the police chiefs and Army officers that conspire with them.”

In late December, Moshe Feiglin, the chairman of the far-right Zehut party, visited Ben-Pazi’s farm. “So you are the violent monster that managed to drive away the multitude of Arabs?” he asked. Feiglin looked around, taking in the landscape. “You are sitting here on an area that is three times the municipal area of Tel Aviv.”

“In the end, it’s the connection to the earth,” Ben-Pazi said. “If we want the land, we will get it.” ♦


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