'They Took Over Like ISIS': Religious War in West Bank Town Shows Not All Jewish Settlers Were Created Equal

The standoff between secular and religious settlers in this isolated community would have gone unnoticed had it not escalated into a deadly altercation in the nearby Palestinian village of Qusra

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Migdalim and Qusra in the West Bank.
Credit: Ilan Assayag
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer
Hilo Glazer

“The capital of Samaria’s young people,” a sign declares at the entrance to the West Bank settlement of Migdalim. Once inside the settlement, though, it’s clear that this is an unfulfilled promise. It’s been a long time since there were students in the so-called student village, ostensibly the heart of “the capital of the young people.” It is now a trailer park for the religiously observant public. The Balaclava Bar, which for a short time was the hottest meeting place in the northern West Bank, shut down two years ago.

“People would flock to the place,” recalls Raz Hamami, who managed the Balaclava. “Religious people, secular people, guys from the Jordan Valley, from Kfar Tapuah. A lot of people in Samaria hinted to me that it would be better if the bar were kosher, but it was important for us to be open Thursday-Friday-Saturday.”

In short order, friction began with the committee that was appointed by the Interior Ministry to manage the settlement at the time. At first the committee acknowledged the bar’s importance and even provided a generous grant to set it up, but its support was soon terminated.

“Suddenly the money got stuck,” Hamami says. “They saw that we [secular residents] weren’t going along with their agenda and were against their plan to absorb hundreds of religious people into a settlement of 40 families, so they cut off funding. We paid for the last part of the renovation ourselves. At first, the place blossomed, but at some point we had the feeling that we were running on empty. They didn’t let us advertise and we didn’t get the support that other businesses in Samaria get. We were threatened with a lawsuit over the money we spent, we got back the money we had invested, handed the keys over to the settlement and said: Shalom, thanks a lot. That allowed us to pursue the real battle, because you can’t both be dependent on these bodies and also fight them.”

The “real battle” is over the character of Migdalim, which is situated 20 kilometers east of Ariel and was established in the mid-1980s as an outpost of the Israel Defense Forces’ Nahal Brigade.

Hamami, 32, was about two weeks old when his parents left Ramat Gan and moved to a bare hill overlooking the Palestinian villages of Duma and Qusra, so in a certain sense he is Migdalim’s “first child.” In time, Migdalim developed into a predominantly secular community, with about 80 households – something of an oddity in a project that was fueled by the messianic fervor of the Gush Emunim movement.

At the end of the last century, in the wake of internal wrangling and economic distress, Migdalim agreed to forgo its authority to manage itself, and place it in the hands of an appointed committee of outsiders. By the beginning of this decade, the feeling was that this external body had run its course and had achieved little. The secular core group of the settlement called for local elections. When the Registrar of Associations, a state body, objected, the residents sought relief in the courts. But even as some were fighting for their democratic rights, under their nose the settlement began to undergo a radical metamorphosis. In August 2014, a first group of eight religiously observant families arrived in Migdalim; they were the harbinger of a more massive influx.

In last summer’s elections, the first in 20 years, it suddenly emerged that the secular veterans had become a minority; the settlement was now controlled by a committee whose members, recent arrivals, are religious. The new order is easy to discern: The student village and the bar have been replaced by a synagogue and a luxuriously appointed mikveh, a ritual purification bath, which was dedicated this year. But these structures tell only part of the story. The real drama in Migdalim has played out beneath the surface, in the form of threats, complaints to the police, vociferous protests on Yom Kippur and one set of burnt tefillin.

The real drama in Migdalim has played out beneath the surface, in the form of threats, vociferous protests on Yom Kippur and one set of burnt tefillin.

‘We were suffocated’

For the past three years, Migdalim has been torn between two camps. “It’s like the ISIS caliphate – they came and took over the country, and now it’s theirs,” one of the secular leaders is overheard saying in a phone call to an official of the Samaria Regional Council, in a recording made available to Haaretz. And a senior community coordinator in the settlement told a potential newcomer, “The veterans here are not necessarily the secular neighbors you’d want as your neighbors. One was in jail, another cheated on a woman with some guy. These aren’t moral secular types, idealists.”

But if the religious-secular war hadn’t escalated into a roiling conflict with security implications, no one would be taking an interest in the fabric of life in the small, isolated community that lies deep in the West Bank. The turning point was triggered by the incident on November 30, a Thursday, in which dozens of youths set out from Migdalim on their way to another settlement, Kida, on what was termed a bar-mitzvah hike. When they reached the village of Qusra, they were stoned by Palestinians. In response, one of the parents accompanying them opened fire, killing a Palestinian. The young people then hid in a cave until they were rescued by the Israel Defense Forces.

The mainstream media described the incident as an “attempted lynching” of the hikers, and the tenor of the reporting remained unchanged even after it became known that the settlers had not received the army’s permission for the hike. The only person who dared offer a different interpretation was actually a Migdalim resident, Mor Shoshana. In a Facebook post, the 28-year-old Shoshana wrote that the group that set out from Migdalim (he was not part of it) actually consisted of “residents of Yitzhar [a settlement known for its radical members] who decided to go on a bar-mitzvah ‘hike’ and enter the village with one goal only – to create a provocation!” He added, “I am just shocked to read in the news that youths were attacked by ‘terrorists,’ which is a complete lie!”

Shoshana noted that, “We and the neighboring village have lived peacefully and even in relative cooperation for 30 years. We never had incidents, even during the intifada we lived in relative peace!” He concluded, “It pains me to see that good people are depicted as monsters, because hilltop-youth extremists entered their home bent only on generating war! My settlement [Migdalim] was secular in character, and three years ago it began to be taken over by an extremist religious group.”

Shoshana’s post, which immediately shared by thousands, drew sympathetic responses, alongside fierce condemnations from far-right commenters, who branded him “a representative of the terrorists” and a “disgusting creep” who, they hoped, would “be slaughtered by an Arab.”

But the virtual assault was only the prologue to what happened two nights later, on December 2, when a group of so-called hilltop youths from other locales arrived outside Migdalim with the intention of provoking the residents of Qusra, and confronted Israeli soldiers there. Shoshana decided to find out why the group had come to an already-fraught area, and arrived as well.

“I came to protect you,” one of the youths told him. “You are not a Jew,” others railed at him.

Shoshana, who as a soldier in the Golani infantry brigade took part in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in late 2008, was unwilling to let such retorts go unanswered.

“I don’t need you to look after me, I’ve been doing that for myself for around 30 years. You came to my home and made a mess here, you incited the whole place,” he replied angrily.

Shoshana was still fuming when I met him this week in Migdalim. “I served in Nablus, I have a commanding officer who lost an eye – we went through quite a lot,” he said, showing me around. “I was sent to Yitzhar, too. I found myself lying in ambush for 12 hours in the rain, protecting a settlement that has no fence [by choice of its residents]. And then those types treat me as though I was from some extreme left-wing organization.”

According to Shoshana, Duma is a “hostile village,” in contrast to Qusra, “where we go freely, and as children even played soccer with them.” But his attention is focused inward now – to the changes taking place in Migdalim, which he sees as the trigger of the present tension with the Palestinian neighbors. “The extremists who come here motivate the extremists there,” he says.

An amateur musician who is currently working in furniture installation, Shoshana is from one of Migdalim’s founding families. “My father obtained budgeting to build the settlement’s clubhouse,” he relates. That building, by the way, was recently converted into a kindergarten, for the benefit of the children of the young religious families who have been moving into the settlement. The clubhouse is now situated in a smaller building, located in the heart of the religious neighborhood.

“When we asked for the keys to the [new] clubhouse, we were told that we were a minority and it would be a waste of electricity,” Shoshana says.

In the meantime, the settlement’s executive committee announced a proviso for use of the structure where the bar is now operating: “Events on Sabbath eve and holiday eves will begin an hour and a half after the advent of the Sabbath [or holiday],” in order not to interfere with the prayer service in the adjacent synagogue. The militants among the secular residents, unwilling to accept this restriction, sometimes hold events in the central plaza, which include music played at high volume. They don’t deny that there is an element of provocation in their behavior. On one occasion their protest almost resulted in violence, when one of the new residents shut down the amplification system.

“We’ve been suffocated, pushed into a corner. There is no budget for secular activities,” Shoshana says, explaining the extreme Sabbath-eve demonstrations. “We were in favor of making this a mixed settlement, we supported the integration of religious families, but in an agreed, controlled way.”

It’s a free country – everyone can live wherever he sees fit.

Shoshana: “Migdalim is one of the few settlements in Judea and Samaria that have a secular character. Try and move into Har Bracha, Yitzhar or Itamar as a secular person. You will not be accepted. I’ll tell you more than that: I have two gay brothers who live in Tel Aviv, and I very much doubt that they would be accepted today as ‘continuing sons’ in Migdalim. My parents’ generation went through a lot in order to establish a diversified, pluralistic, free settlement. It’s sad to see what’s become of it. The extremists have turned us into a military post.”

Absurd situation

The home of Eli and Iris Goldbach, among the founders of Migdalim, is just a few steps past the electrified entrance gate. “Some people will tell you that Ramat Aviv, which stands on the site of [the Palestinian village of] Sheikh Munis, is also controversial territory,” Eli says about his choice to live on the outskirts of Nablus. “The state made it possible for me, so I came. I am simply very Zionist.”

The Goldbachs are among the leaders of the secular struggle here. They did not hesitate to put their names at the top of the court petitions (which eventually reached the Supreme Court) that were submitted against the election for the five-member executive committee held in the settlement last June, which they call “fictitious and illegitimate.” The absurdity of the situation, as they see it, is embodied in the committee’s refusal to accept their two children, who grew up in the settlement, as members of the Migdalim association, which would accord them the right to vote in elections. Yet, religious people who arrived in January were registered as members in February. “Some of them have already left,” Eli says. “People showed up, stayed for two-three weeks, put a ballot in the ballot box and left. That’s how the religious group got its majority.”

Indeed, the voter registration list from election day reflected a majority of 58 percent new residents, most of them religiously observant, as opposed to 42 percent veteran settlers, who are identified as secular. That’s not an overwhelming majority, and if the vote had been held on a basis of each resident voting for one candidate, the secular group would have at least gotten proportional representation on the executive committee. However, the elections committee chose to interpret a clause in the regulations of the Registrar of Associations to ensure that the elections would be held in a different format, with each member voting for five candidates. Because the religious majority voted en bloc for its candidates, five of its representatives were elected, with no secular representation. An appeal against the system to the Jerusalem District Court was rejected.

What most riles the secular residents is the way their relations with the neighboring Arab villages have deteriorated.

What most riles the Goldbachs, like all their secular neighbors, is the way their relations with the neighboring Arab villages have deteriorated because of the settlement’s altered character. “Groups from Yitzhar and Itamar come here, set the territory on fire – and we’re the ones who have to live here on a day-to-day basis,” Iris says, to which Eli adds, “It’s not that love exists between us and the people in Qusra – there have been incidents in the past – but we lived next to one another respectfully. We buy there, they work here.”

However, some of the recent arrivals in Migdalim deny that the ethos of good neighborliness can serve as a basis for settlement in Judea and Samaria. A case in point is Lt. Col. (res.) Yehuda Liebman, who moved to Migdalim from Yitzhar three years ago. Liebman, organizer of the recent hike that ended in violence, told the newspaper Maariv in a 2014 interview, “People tend to look for peace and quiet, to sit ‘under their own vine and their own fig tree,’ but the reality is that there is no quiet. The Israeli public is incapable of accommodating people who constantly try to bring up the core issues of the Jewish people.”

Shaike Rosenvaser, originally from the city of Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv, moved to Migdalim with his family seven years ago. He does not identify with that point of view, which from his perspective does not reflect an authentic feeling in the settlement.

“Why take 25 children from Yitzhar on a hike that starts in Migdalim?” Rosenwasser asks. “Let them start from Yitzhar, from Elon Junction, from Kfar Tapuah. Afterward, we’re the ones who get stones thrown at us. Why involve me in your hike? I want to live my life, go down to Qusra to buy cigarettes, buy bread there for 2 shekels instead of 10 [55 cents instead of $2.80]. I get along just fine with them.”

Lords of the land

Monday morning two weeks ago, the entrance to Migdalim. A group of young people from nearby settlements and settler outposts, led by the determined ultranationalist trio of Itamar Ben-Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben Ari, have come to demonstrate their presence outside Qusra. Security forces are preventing the group from reaching the main road that leads to the village. But another group has already reached the hills by indirect routes, and in short order, the atmosphere heats up. In response, the Palestinians throw stones, roll rocks down the slopes and burn tires. The Israeli troops respond with gunfire, in the course of which a Palestinian is seriously wounded.

Sagi Gefen, Migdalim’s longtime representative on the Samaria Regional Council and one of the leaders of the secular protest, arrives to counter the demonstrators. “Shame on you,” he tells the leaders of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish might) movement, who are watching their wards on the hills. Ben-Gvir snaps back, “You’re the one who holds barbecues on Yom Kippur, who represents the minority of the minority.”

Ben Ari, too, joins the conversation: “This land does not belong to those who came to live in the hotel called Migdalim while fire rages all around.”

Don’t secular people who have been living on an isolated hill opposite Qusra for 30 years contribute to the settlement project?

Ben Ari: “We have not come to contribute to the settlement project, we have come to hold the land. Not to establish settlements, but to tell our enemies, ‘We are the owners.’”

Isn’t it of value for the settlements to be diverse, for secular people to live in them too?

“By what right does he [Gefen] reside in this country? What’s he looking for here? He is a total goy, nothing but an ‘occupier,’ as they call it in Haaretz. We are offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the ones who observe Shabbat and fast on [Yom] Kippur, who have come to redeem the land.

“The truth must be told,” Ben Ari continues. “Until the religious group arrived, Migdalim was a dying settlement, was completely deceased. Because, without people of total devotion, it’s not sustainable. Those are the facts. Those without faith do not survive, don’t succeed in hanging on.”

When I ask him about it, Rosenvaser, a dominant secular activist, says that such talk outrages him. “The fact is,” he says, “that for 30 years we got along wonderfully here without them. There is nothing chance about the changes in the settlement. There was a policy here to target a settlement, depict it as failing, to tell secular people who are taking an interest that no new members are being admitted, and in the meantime to prepare the ground.”

According to the chairman of the settlement’s new executive committee, Shmuel Madmon, who has lived in Migdalim for the past three years, the more militants secular residents do not truly reflect the wishes of the secular residents. “They’re a minority who are trying to hitch a ride on the attempted lynching at Qusra for their own interests, which are mainly economic: debtors, people who have committed building violations, people who want jobs in the settlement.

“Let them talk about their own deeds,” Madmon continues, “about the repeated harassments over years. In the first year and a half, when we [the religious group] were only 10 families. About how they would shut off the electricity in the synagogue every Shabbat, how they shouted obscenities at women with a megaphone, verging on sexual harassment, about how they played music on [the fast day of] Tisha B’Av. And let’s not forget the guy who put tefillin on a barbecue on Yom Kippur. It has nothing to do with right or left, secular or religious. It has to do with sanity – these are sick people.”

Madmon seeks to put things in context. “There was a settlement here, established by good people, that didn’t take off,” he says. “The appointed outside committee tried to bring about secular integration, and opening the pub was part of that effort. But it didn’t work. The fact is that for 30 years, the settlement had 40 families at most, and in the past three years it has more than doubled its numbers. For the first time there is also a developer building in the settlement.”

Elections grab

In 1983, a group of employees of the Egged bus cooperative met to talk about establishing a new settlement next to Barkan, the Israeli industrial zone in the West Bank. Following a tour of potential locations, the group decided to settle in, and “civilianize” the Nahal outpost of Migdalim. The initiative ran into problems and the group broke up. But Liora Yagoda, the wife of one of the Egged employees, did not despair. She put together a new group, which moved to the settlement two years later. Yagoda went on to hold a number of posts in Migdalim – executive secretary, head of the emergency team, spokesperson – before her death a decade ago, at age 64.

'Until the religious group arrived, Migdalim was a dying settlement … Those without faith do not survive, don’t succeed in hanging on.'

Michael Ben Ari

Her son Barak followed in his mother’s footsteps, when he established his home in Migdalim after he got married. His wife, Orna Yagoda, originally from Be’er Sheva, was the settlement’s librarian for seven years, until being summoned for a pre-dismissal hearing last month. “They explained to me that I didn’t meet the children’s needs,” Yagoda relates. Within days, she was fired. The development was not a surprise to her, because of late she had received “hints that the library wasn’t ‘clean’ enough.”

“Maybe it was because of stories by Julia Donaldson [author of “The Gruffalo,” among other children’s books] that have some sort of Christmas connotation, and one of which explicitly mentions Santa Claus, something absolutely unacceptable for the religiously observant,” she says. “Or maybe it was because of the comics that children like, such as ‘Captain Underpants’ or ‘Disgusting Dave’ – [with people saying] ‘heaven forbid that such things should enter my home.’

“People didn’t say these things to my face, only behind my back,” Yagoda emphasizes. “No one came and said, ‘Try to improve and reach the whole population here.’ In fact, in the past few months I brought in many holy books and more religious literature – from the moment I recognized that this is what was needed. And despite it all, I was fired. I’m unsuitable because I’m secular.”

Is it possible that, besides your secularity, your identification with the protest in the settlement played a part?

Yagoda: “Of course. From their point of view, anyone who takes it on himself to explain the secular narrative and who thinks that we are allowed to behave as secular people, is not meant to be among the decision makers or officials of the settlement.”

Mobile homes in the West Bank settlement of Migdalim.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Equally disturbing is the story of a woman who was born abroad and adopted, and was asked to submit documents corroborating her Jewishness as a condition for continuing to work in the preschool. “I really hope this isn’t offensive,” the institution’s director is heard saying in a recording of the conversation with the employee that was made available to Haaretz. The employee was asked to provide “a document showing that you underwent Orthodox conversion.”

“Do you see yourself as a Jew?” the employee was asked on another occasion. “If you say you were raised as a Jew, I trust that in the meantime, but I need to examine what happened.” A few days later, the woman’s employment was terminated, ostensibly because of a different dispute between her and her employers.

The members of the secular front at Migdalim say that their dispossession was spearheaded by “large bodies that wield influence in the region and that had set themselves the goal of changing the settlement’s character and transforming it from a secular place to a religious one,” as they assert on a Facebook page, “Saving Migdalim” (in Hebrew) that was created to further the struggle. This stew, they say, is being cooked up by the Samaria Regional Council, Amana (a settlement movement founded by Gush Emunim) and the Land Settlement Department of the World Zionist Organization.

No concrete proof exists of any such coordinated and orchestrated plan, although the processes of change in the settlement do raise several questions. For example, there was the urgent declaration of the ballot committee last June 22 that an election would be held three days later (and a week after the court’s rejection of the petition concerning the voting method). The lightning move took place after some two decades in which Migdalim was managed from outside, and seven years after the secular group had started to fight for an election to be held. The secular group believes that the election’s timing was purely opportunistic. Gefen, for one, is convinced that they “waited for the minute when they would have a majority, and immediately called a snap election.”

Asked for comment, the Registrar of Associations gave this statement to Haaretz: “The events in Migdalim, including the various decisions that the Registrar of Cooperative Associations made concerning the settlement, were deliberated time and again before the Jerusalem District Court and the Supreme Court in a framework of no fewer than 10 different proceedings that a few residents of the settlement set in motion. In all these cases the courts ruled against the residents, and confirmed the decisions of the Registrar of Cooperative Associations.”

A spokesperson for the Samaria Regional Council said that the council “is proud of the human diversity in Samaria,” adding, “Democratic elections were held in Migdalim, and a committee was elected that is working for the benefit of residents. We do not check to see whether or not someone is wearing a skullcap. It should be noted that more than 30 petitions on the subject were submitted to the courts, including the Supreme Court, and all were dismissed. The court also praised the process of strengthening and healing the settlement that is being led by the council.”

An equally intriguing question concerns the motivation of Shmuel Madmon, the head of the elected committee. The owner of a store that sold religious objects, Madmon moved to Migdalim a few years ago after being expelled – no more delicate word is appropriate here – from the Jordan Valley settlement of Yitav. The latter is a religiously moderate moshav, or cooperative village, most of whose residents are from the former Soviet Union. Madmon and his family arrived at Yitav at the beginning of the decade as part of a group that founded a pre-army preparatory program there. But it soon became apparent that he had far greater ambitions.

“The idea was to strengthen Yitav by creating a pre-army course there and absorbing five-six families, but problems soon cropped up,” I was told by David Alhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Council. “It started when the newcomers’ children told the local children, ‘You are not Jews,’ and continued in the form of notices they placed in all kinds of pamphlets to the effect that they were a sort of absorption committee. That made the blood of the Yitav residents boil, and made me understand that the whole aim of this group was to seize control of the settlement. We consulted about the matter and decided that we would kick them out. We shut down the preparatory course. My heart goes out to the residents of Migdalim.”

From Yitav, the Madmon family moved to Migdalim and immediately established a not-for-profit organization, one of whose aims, as they reported to the registrar of such associations, is to “disseminate Torah and instruction to children and adults, secular and religious people in the settlement of Migdalim.” One of the association’s founders is Netanel Lisha, who until recently was assistant to the director general of the Samaria Regional Council. Lisha conducted his correspondence with the registrar via the council’s official email.

This web of connections reinforces the secular activists’ belief that the moves were coordinated and planned. “We’ve been had,” Gefen says. “The question of questions is how it’s logical for a new community to arrive and within three years they become the majority and manage the settlement by themselves. If they are bent on peace and brotherhood, as they claim, why should they want to manage me?”

Gefen channeled his puzzlement into boisterous protests, notably the one last Yom Kippur, when he and a few friends organized a barbecue on a porch that overlooks the main road into the settlement and also played loud music. “They took the clubhouse from us, the bar is closed, the ‘continuing sons’ have no homes here, but in their group [of the religious families] you move into a trailer and immediately become a member of the association. So, yes, sometimes you have no choice but to take action like that.”

A more extreme approach is voiced by Liron Alon, 38, originally from Bat Yam, who came to Migdalim 16 years ago. Because he was a bachelor, the settlement heaped obstacles before him in his aspiration to gain full membership. For a decade, Alon, who was a volunteer in the local emergency ambulance service, was repeatedly rebuffed in his efforts to be accepted under the “exceptions” rubric [i.e., as a single person], while dozens of religious families were admitted with no difficulties. He too decided to take action: On Yom Kippur in 2015 he stood at a central location in the settlement, wrapped in a tallit, lit a barbecue and burned tefillin on it.

“True, it was a provocation,” he admits. “They brought me to the end of my tether when they let me understand finally that I had no chance of being able to buy a house here.”

Some engage in far quieter protests. Raz Hamami, the settlement’s first child, hasn’t actually lived there for the past few years – he and his wife are renting in a Galilee community. The move to Galilee was meant to make the daily trips to the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, where he studies, easier, but Hamami acknowledges that despair at the situation in Migdalim also played a part in the decision to leave. “I can’t stand seeing what’s happened to the settlement I grew up in,” he says.

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