Visiting a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
I'm Ari Shapiro in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which Israel calls by the biblical name Judea and Samaria. When you first meet Nati Rom, the thing that stands out most isn't his clothes, his kippah or his dusty truck. It's the strap over his shoulder with an M16 hanging at his waist. He says he's also carrying a Glock pistol.
Have you ever had to use it?
NATI ROM: Many times, unfortunately.
SHAPIRO: Can you tell me about one of those times?
ROM: Yeah. One of those times, I was driving with my children and my wife from Jerusalem to my village, and I suddenly received three Molotov cocktails and a small bomb on my car. So I was forced to shoot. This is a way for us to protect our life.
SHAPIRO: Do you know whether you hit anybody?
ROM: No. Usually, they do it as a coward in the dark from the trees, so it's hard to hit your attackers.
SHAPIRO: He has five kids, ages 2 to 10.
And how do they understand this?
ROM: It's very, very hard. We explain to them that we are here for a reason and that we cannot give terror - to make us surrender or to make us afraid. And of course, we are afraid. But we are strong to protect Israel and ourselves.
SHAPIRO: Nati lives in a community called Esh Kodesh. In Hebrew that means holy fire. It's a Jewish settlement, a small outpost in the occupied West Bank. Israel captured this land and the Palestinians living on it in a war more than 50 years ago. Ever since, Israel has built more residential communities on the very land Palestinians want for a country of their own. And Israel has imposed a harsh military occupation of daily humiliations and violence for Palestinians. Human rights groups now say it is tantamount to apartheid. And most countries, including the U.S., oppose the very existence of these settlements. The existence of Esh Kodesh is provocative and controversial, sort of like Nati himself.
ROM: I established a few of the new villages here, and I live here since '99.
SHAPIRO: He refers to settlers as pioneers. Earlier today, Morning Edition host Leila Fadel reported from Qusra, the Palestinian village right next to Esh Kodesh. The villagers there say settlers shoot and kill Palestinians with impunity. The Israeli military either helps or turns a blind eye, they say. And the violence in the occupied West Bank has increased since the war in Israel and Gaza began.
So now we're going to hear the view from the settlements about what's changed since the war started and how they view this new, more violent reality. Nati didn't want to meet me in the settlement of Esh Kodesh. He's very suspicious. No photos, he said, no walking through his neighborhood. He suggested we meet at a site with biblical history, a nearby tourist attraction called Ancient Shiloh.
ROM: The Mishkan, the Tabernacle, was here. The ark was here. The famous prayer of Hannah was here. And this is historical, and this is our roots.
SHAPIRO: His mission, expanding the Jewish footprint one village at a time, is both nationalistic and religious. In his view, and the view of all the settlers we spoke with, life in the occupied West Bank is a battle. It has been for years. And now, after the recent Hamas attacks, they believe other Israelis are coming around to their view.
ROM: Unfortunately, in the last years, because of the propaganda and progressive things, like, disarm, so many of the villagers were disarmed. And now we are working very hard to solve this and to give guns to the people, to civilian groups.
SHAPIRO: So tell me the future that you picture, the future that you aspire to move towards.
ROM: The future is that we will be able to eliminate the snake. And people who want to kill Israel and kill Jews and kill human being will be punished and eliminate. They all want to kill us, some of them telling it straight away, and some of them keep it to themselves.
SHAPIRO: When I ask whether he believes there are any good people in Qusra, he says if so, they need to immediately evacuate. Remember, Palestinians accuse masked settlers from his community of coming to Qusra unprovoked last week and fatally shooting several people, a claim Nati denies. Nati is more militant than other settlers we met, but every one of them sees their presence in the occupied West Bank as part of an existential struggle.
GEDALIAH BLUM: There's a battle. There's a battle, and I don't think it's a battle over land. I think it's a battle over culture. It's a battle over ideologies.
SHAPIRO: Gedaliah (ph) and Ellisheva (ph) are husband and wife who don't agree on how to pronounce their last name, B-L-U-M.
G BLUM: It's funny. So there's no Blum in Hebrew. There's Bloom (ph) in Hebrew. So we're speaking English, so she'll say Blum, and I'll say Bloom (ph) because I've been saying Bloom (ph) for 20 years now.
SHAPIRO: They were both born in the U.S. and live in a settlement called Eli at the top of a hill. It looks like a fancy suburb surrounded by olive groves where Palestinians come to pick the harvest this time of year.
ELLISHEVA BLUM: It's hard not to sound racist, but, like, at what point do we say we can't live with these people?
SHAPIRO: They have seven kids. The 11-year-old is baking chocolate cookies, and the smell fills the house. When I ask what's changed since the Hamas-Israel war began, Ellisheva says everyone knows someone who's died. A soldier in the community was just killed on Saturday at the edge of Gaza.
E BLUM: But on a personal level, actually, I feel like the sense of, like, personal security here has actually gone up, like it were better, because, A - they're not letting Palestinians in, like, workers. So like I was telling Gedaliah, that you go to the bathroom and usually, like, a cleaner that's Palestinian. And they're always, like, kind of looking at you out of the corner of their eye.
SHAPIRO: As she sees it, the kibbutz communities and the music festival that Hamas attacked on October 7 - those were leftists, peaceniks. They preached coexistence. And where did it get them?
E BLUM: I'm not blaming any group of people. I have - we have friends from, you know, all sides. And people did what they thought was right. But, yes, I do feel that it was destructive.
G BLUM: The way I see it was that the lion has been sleeping, and it's just gotten woken up.
SHAPIRO: I want to be totally clear on what the metaphor is. The lion in this instance is?
G BLUM: Is Israel, the lion of Israel.
E BLUM: The lion of Zion.
G BLUM: The lion of Zion. We are fierce. We are dangerous.
E BLUM: To our enemies.
G BLUM: We're fierce, and we're dangerous. And when we're sleeping, then there are vulnerabilities. When we wake up, then you're going to see what's going to happen. And we're already seeing what's going to happen.
SHAPIRO: According to Israeli researcher Dror Etkes, one thing that's happening under the cover of the war in Gaza and the rocket fire on Israel is a massive increase in settler violence here in the occupied West Bank against Palestinians. We met at a coffee stand not far from the settlements.
DROR ETKES: This place is constructed on fear. The entire politics of this place is constructed on fear and racism, this is how this place is constructed.
SHAPIRO: He has studied Israeli land policies around settlements for decades. He says it's too early to have exact figures on how much violence has increased.
ETKES: I don't think that I would be wrong if I would say that in the last week, we have seen increase of hundreds of percents.
SHAPIRO: And it's not just the number of attacks, he says, it's the severity.
ETKES: So it's not only verbal. There's a difference between verbal violent and between not allowing someone to get into a certain area than to get into a community and to shoot in the air or to shoot at solar panels or to shoot at water containers or to shoot at animals, you know?
SHAPIRO: Those are all real, not hypothetical, examples?
ETKES: These are definitely real examples which are documented, which we know about, yeah.
SHAPIRO: I could imagine a settler listening to this conversation and saying, you're painting with too broad brush. You're saying we're all violent. Is that what you're saying?
ETKES: So obviously, when we speak about 500,000 people who are living in the West Bank or almost 500,000 - 480 or so, yeah? - there are different types of settler. There are different representation of different social layers. But you happen to ask about the most violent wing within the settlers' community.
ETKES: But this is not a small group within the settlers' community, we're talking about - significant part. And this is the most important thing, you know, is they're supported by the Israeli government. It's not a personal project of this settler or the other. This is a national project.
SHAPIRO: Our last stop in the settlements is the home of Miri Ovadia Maoz (ph). She was born and raised in a community called Neve Tzuf. It's been around for more than 50 years. She lives two doors down from her parents, and her home is surrounded by fruit trees and grapevines.
MIRI OVADIA MAOZ: But we just got a peach tree, which our dad...
SHAPIRO: She works full-time in the Knesset, Israel's Congress. And she's looking after her five kids on her own since her husband was deployed to the war. She says for years, settlers have been shouting to other Israelis, listen, people want to kill us. But she says the country didn't pay attention.
MAOZ: OK, you can say - I don't think that it's legitimate. You can say, you're a settler. You chose to be here with your family. You're putting your children in a certain situation. You can say that about me. I will argue, but you can say that about me. But if you're thinking about people who lived in the recognized borders of Israel, who did not conquer that from anybody else, who were brutally killed while partying, you know, with their friends or in their homes, burned to death in these places, I mean, it's really horrific.
SHAPIRO: A lot of what settlers are saying is subtle, but the message appears clear - the fewer Palestinians are here, the better. So what is the path forward?
MAOZ: I think that if we are harsh enough with the baddies - sorry for the slang, OK? If we're harsh enough with those bad people who are trying to harm, to hurt, to kill, then it will give more hope to the normal people who are just trying to live a normal life here.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: I ask what normal looks like, and she says normal is gone. Normal is dead.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
That was our ALL THINGS CONSIDERED co-host Ari Shapiro reporting from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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