By Jason Burke in south Hebron hills, West Bank for Guardian UK
Human rights groups say settlers, empowered by their right-wing government, are exploiting the Israel-Hamas war
amal Sikurel pats her belly, swollen with her sixth child, and smiles. “It is part of the war effort,” she says. Behind her is a school empty of pupils and homes empty of their former inhabitants. Beyond the buildings are dry hills sloping down to the Jordan valley.
“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,” Sikurel said.https://interactive.guim.co.uk/uploader/embed/2023/11/west-bankareasofcontrolmap/giv-13425C4bOvYFpJmAI/
This 35-year-old, and the other 500,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, are now at the centre of a growing storm of violence and controversy as the war between Israel and Hamas moves into its seventh week.
Some are motivated by religious or nationalistic reasons, others by the lower cost of living. What was once seen as a pioneer lifestyle is now often very comfortable: some early settlements, once tiny rudimentary “wildcat” outposts, are now well established and wealthy, with security guards at the entrance and fences topped with cameras and barbed wire. Their population has surged 16% in the last five years.
Israeli human rights groups say settlers, already empowered by the most rightwing government in Israel’s history, have exploited the conflict to pursue their own agenda, intensifying efforts to force Palestinians out of their homes on the West Bank.
Last Thursday, the French government condemned this as a “policy of terror” and urged Israeli authorities to protect Palestinians from “violence which has the clear objective of forced displacement”. President Joe Biden, a staunch ally of Israel, said last month the attacks by “extremist settlers” amounted to “pouring gasoline” on the already burning fires in the Middle East.
Such criticism may explain a recent public relations effort by settlers to improve their image. Regavim, a pro-settler NGO usually hostile to international journalists, drove a busload of reporters into the south Hebron hills last Thursday while giving them a lecture about the conflict.
One stop on the tour was Zanuta, a village where the Guardian had previously reported that weeks of intense settler violence had, by the end of October, forced its 150 Palestinian residents to make a reluctant collective decision to leave. Armed settlers – some in reservist army uniforms, some covering their faces – had begun breaking into their homes at night, beating up the adults, destroying and stealing belongings, and terrifying the children.
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