Hebron’s Jewish settlers take heart from far-right polls surge in Israel

The triumph of extremist parties in recent elections is a cause for celebration in the birthplace of the settlement movement

In 1968, a year after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War that marked the beginning of the occupation of the Palestinian territories, about 60 messianic Jews posing as Swiss tourists travelled to a hotel in the holy West Bank city of Hebron, where they celebrated a Passover seder.

Later, the group visited the Cave of the Patriarchs – known to Muslims as al-Ibrahimi Mosque – where Abraham and his kin are supposedly buried.

They never left. The trip is now widely viewed as the birth of the modern settler movement, which sees restoring the historical land of Israel as a religious calling which will hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Hebron today is a striking manifestation of what that vision means for the Palestinian population.

The 30,000 or so Palestinians living in the part of the city under Israeli control are not even allowed to walk on certain streets, while roughly 800 Israeli settlers, under the protection of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), have steadily taken over Palestinian homes and businesses since the 1990s.

On a cold, wet day last week, soldiers at checkpoints and a group of young Jewish boys splashing in puddles were the only signs of life in what used to be a thriving economic centre.

Israeli settlers occupy in an illegal outpost near the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba near the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank.
Israeli settlers occupy in an illegal outpost near the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba near the Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

The divided city has long been a magnet for followers of the anti-Arab terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from politics before being assassinated in 1990. In 1994, a member of his Kach movement entered al-Ibrahimi mosque, gunning down 29 people at prayer. The perpetrator is buried in the neighbouring Kiryat Arba settlement, and his grave has become a de facto shrine.

Three decades later, Kahanism has not just survived: after Israel’s election this month, it has become the third largest political force in the country, and Kahanist politicians will have important portfolios in former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government.

A total of 88% of the Jewish community here and 67% of 3,000-strong Kiryat Arba voted for one of their own – Kiryat Arba resident, former Kahane disciple and rising star of the Religious Zionist party, Itamar Ben-Gvir.

“I’m not a religious person. I don’t cover my hair or anything, I have LGBT friends,” said Elinor, a 24-year-old single mother who works at Kiryat Arba’s supermarket. “Like everyone else I voted for Netanyahu in the past and switched to Ben-Gvir this time because of the security situation.

“I think he’s become so popular because the rest of the country is starting to understand how dangerous it is and what we are going through here.”

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Netanyahu’s bloc of far-right and religious parties won a majority on 1 November, and he will in all probability return to office in a few weeks at the head of the most rightwing government in Israel’s history.

He was able to end Israel’s four-year political crisis, triggered by his ongoing corruption trial, by persuading three far-right fringe parties to merge into one list called the Religious Zionists before the 2021 election, pushing them over the electoral threshold and into the Knesset.

This time, Ben-Gvir’s rocketing popularity helped the slate more than double their seats to 14. Six of them are settlers, living in the West Bank despite the fact it is illegal under international law and Israeli settlements – growing all the time – negate the possibility of a two-state solution.

His fiery speeches calling for immunity for Israeli police and soldiers who harm Palestinians, the reinstatement of the death penalty for terrorism offences and the deportation of “disloyal” citizens have resonated during an election cycle marred by spiralling violence.

A total of 21 Israelis and 121 Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have been killed so far in 2022 – a 16-year record.

A former member of the Kach terrorist group, with a conviction for inciting racism, Ben-Gvir supports altering Israel’s legal code, which could help Netanyahu in his corruption trial.

Other members of the slate also want an end to Palestinian autonomy in areas of the West Bank, legislative reform to incorporate traditional religious law, and a roll back of gay rights.

Far-right supporters of the Kach movement take part in the annual commemoration of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Far-right supporters of the Kach movement take part in the annual commemoration of Rabbi Meir Kahane. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum/The Observer

Coalition horse-trading is under way, and Ben-Gvir is lobbying to be minister of public security, a role that would put him in charge of the police. Israel’s security services would then be in the extraordinary position of being asked to share intelligence with an individual on their watchlist.

Many political observers thought that as part of recent efforts to soften his image, Ben-Gvir would stay away from a memorial in Jerusalem on Thursday night marking the anniversary of Rabbi Kahane’s death. Instead, he arrived to deliver a glowing tribute.

“I think that the main characteristic of Kahane was love. Love of Israel without compromise and without any other considerations,” he said.

In the past, Kahanist meetings would have the aura of an underground gathering. Now, emboldened by their mainstream success, media were invited and the audience even booed when Ben-Gvir said he does “not support the expulsion of all Arabs”.

For the 20% of the Israeli population which identifies as Palestinian, as well as those living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the far right’s elevation to a major government coalition partner in the Knesset means an already difficult situation is about to get much worse.

Issa Amro, a Palestinian human rights activist in Hebron, knows Ben-Gvir and his supporters well. Amro has been a target of settler violence for years.

In the past fortnight, however, the pressure has been relentless. Gangs of young Jewish men and boys have set fires on his land and attacked friends and family who came to help with this year’s olive harvest. In video footage of several of these incidents, the IDF stands by, allowing the violence to continue.

The Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro at his home in Hebron. Issa’s house was under military closure for a week.
The Palestinian human rights activist Issa Amro near his home in Hebron. Amro’s house was under military closure for around a week. Photograph: Quique Kierszenbaum/The Observer

“I think they are definitely more confident now. Their representatives are the government. They don’t think they have to hold back any more,” he said during the Observer’s visit to Hebron last week.

After Amro complained, the Israeli army declared his house a closed military zone, forbidding anyone except him from entering the property in what he says is a transparent attempt to make him isolated and vulnerable.

Asked for comment, the IDF said: “On Tuesday 1 November, following a number of confrontations in the area, it was decided to temporarily declare the area a closed military zone. The order was valid for one day only and was not extended.”

Soldiers stationed on the street, however, continued to block access to the activist’s house for around 10 days.

Amro said: “I want to live, but I’m not going anywhere, because I want the Palestinian voice to be heard.

“We are not slaves, we deserve to live with rights and dignity. If they can do this to me, someone well connected with lawyers and the international community, I do not want to think about what will they do to the other people living in Hebron … I think dark times are ahead.”

One of Ben-Gvir’s favourite turns of phrase, repeated in every public appearance, is: “We are the masters of this house.” A question he and his fellow religious Zionists have not answered is: Are there such things as masters without slaves?

Contributor

Bethan McKernan in Hebron and Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem

The GuardianTramp

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