Opinion

I Was a Settler. I Know How Settlers Become Killers

I helped establish the illegal West Bank outpost where the suspects in the murder of a Palestinian woman, Aisha Rabi, studied. I've watched the Israeli right wing radicalize to the point of devaluing human life - for anyone who isn’t Jewish

A Jewish settler reacts after being detained by Israeli border policemen at the edge of the West Bank city of Ramallah. April 16, 2006
REUTERS

I left the West Bank settlement of Rehelim about nine years ago. Since then, I have gone through a profound process of change with regard to my ideology and faith, and today I am a vocal critic of the settlement project.

But still, Rehelim is significant to me as a place I helped establish initially as an illegal outpost, and where some of my children were born and raised. The knowledge that the youths studying in the yeshiva in Rehelim are accused of murdering nearby a 47 year-old Palestinian woman, Aisha al-Rabi, rattles me deeply.

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It is important to note at the outset that despite the settler leadership's response, which has ranged from shameful silence, to apologetics, even to an outright defense of the suspects, residents of Rehelim - as far as I know them - are the settler mainstream, opposed to harming human lives and to terror activity.

But unfortunately, the settler mainstream is directly responsible for this grave injustice, as part of the phenomena of nationalistic crime in the occupied territories. Youth gangs have lost all restraint, and sometimes even human dignity, as the product of years of education in which a hyper-nationalistic religious ideology and vision reigns supreme.

Illegal construction in the settlement of Rehelim. 2 September, 2014
נמרוד גליקמן

This is not just about extremist rabbis who clearly pave the way for Jewish terror through books such as the "The King's Torah," and infamous 2010 work published by the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar that opined that non-Jews are "uncompassionate by nature" and attacks on them "curb their evil inclination," while babies and children of Israel's enemies may be killed since "it is clear that they will grow to harm us."

Rather, those responsible for this moral deterioration are mainstream rabbis, educators, and leaders. These individuals openly and blatantly trample the rule of law in order to build another house and take over another hilltop. Those who teach that they know better than the state with regard to every conflict, allow themselves to dictate reality by establishing facts on the ground.

That's how we established Rehelim, and how we developed it day by day. We were determined to establish a settlement there, and even though everything we did was illegal, it happened. All our transgressions were retroactively whitewashed, and the truth is that it comes as no surprise. Successive Israeli governments, for whom the rule of law should have been a guiding light, helped us at every stage of the process.

I often wonder how I had the audacity to pursue my ideology and faith when I knew I was breaking the law, and when the wider Israeli public neither supported my actions nor sent or asked me to do so.

The answer to this question is directly intertwined with the changes that have taken place among the national-religious settler public in recent years. For years, the settlement enterprise resisted Israeli law - and I’m deliberately not even referring to international law, but rather to our Israeli law. This was neither an innocent mistake nor a moment of weakness; it was institutionalized, so the method worked from the very beginning.

The right wing understood that even if they didn't agree on everything, only collective alignment, a united front against the settlement enterprise's enemies, would sustaintheir success. Since that insight trickled down, we have seen a significant process of radicalization among all ranks of the right-wing.

Criminal theft and construction no longer bother anyone on the right, and no one opposes such conduct. In the past harm to Palestinians or their property was weakly condemned by a few right-wingers, but today there's no such voice.

Palestinians carry the body of Aisha Rabi, 48, during her funeral in the West Bank village of Biddya. Oct. 13, 2018
Majdi Mohammed,AP

Only during the government's last term of office did we witness the significant change that has occurred. During the investigation of those suspected of carrying out the grim attack in the Palestinian village of Duma, in which three members of the Dawabsheh family were burnt alive, the main response by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett and Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked was criticism of the of the Shin Bet security service interrogations - and not the crime itself critical.

This time around, Justice Minister Shaked called and even met up with the families of the youths detained on suspicion of Rabi's murder, while maintaining a nominal "non-interference" stance regarding the investigations.

Today, both of them along with all the leaders of the right-wing, remain resoundingly silent on Aisha Rabi's murder and the identity of her attackers. This thunderous silence is the perfect embodiment of collective alignment - for the sake of the end goal, all means are justifiable.  And actions speak louder than words.

As I noted, Rehelim, as far as I know the place and its residents, is not an extreme settlement in relation to others. Yet years of trampling morality and law have dragged the local residents into one collective bloc, along with all settlers and the right-wing at large.

This collective won't even condemn despicable acts of terror, and even devalues the significance of human life, for anyone who isn’t Jewish.

Shabtay Bendet, a father of seven, lives in Jaffa and is head of Peace Now's Settlement Watch team. He was formerly a journalist for the Walla news website (covering the occupied territories and the religious and ultra-Orthodox sectors) and was formerly a religious settler and a founder of the first West Bank outpost. Twitter: @Shabi72