Rabbi Arik Asherman is a faith-based activist who has been for decades at the front line to withstand the intimidation and violence of ultra-right religious groups against Palestinians and is a well-known critical voice against the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank.
On November 4th, 1995, an ultra-nationalist settler assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for proposing the first comprehensive and face-to-face peace treaty with his Palestinian counterpart. Twenty-seven years later, the far-right party that bred his assassin has become the third-largest political force in the country.
In a historical shift for Israel’s democratic system, the election held last November recast the far-right religious Zionism party, Otzma Yehudit, into the third political force of the country and the kingmaker of Netanyahu’s government, the most religious and hard-line in Israel’s history.
Thanks to a surprising political campaign, the party of Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir has doubled their votes in just over a year -from 225,000 to 516,000 preferences- thanks to transversal support within the Israeli population. A victory fueled by the need for security that voters in Israel consider a priority, together with the lack of less extreme alternatives on the right-wing political spectrum.
The reverberating effects of the most extremist players in the Netanyahu alliance are already affecting political relations locally and internationally.
“We are witnessing today a historical change that affects the democratic architecture on which Israel has built its democracy over the years. The same meaning of Judaism is at stake, which sees all human beings created in the image of God. Religious Zionism has changed the rule of the game by pursuing an all-encompassing and uncompromising vision.” Rabbi Arek Asherman
In Washington, the Biden administration made clear that the Prime Minister will be held personally responsible for any intemperance of his far-right coalition partners. The EU has already drawn its red line on “unwavering support for a negotiated two-state solution based on the 1967-lines.”
In the West Bank, the political change in Tel Aviv is impacting the lives of the 3 million Palestinians.
“Since the victory of the coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, we are witnessing an increasing presence of settlers in the Balah area and the Joseph Tomb as well as in the city of Hebron,” said Rafa Mismar, an activist from Nablus.
“Although we expected an increase in violence, we couldn’t imagine the increasing level of violence by the Israeli Army and the upsurge of operations all over the West Bank.”
According to the activists, Joseph’s Tomb, on the outskirt of Nablus, has become the new hotspot in the West Bank with almost daily clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinians. A situation that in the long run could lead to a new wave of bombings and violence.
“Of particular importance is the general call by the Religious Zionist party for the creation of a national army composed of settlers and Israeli living in the West Bank that should be on religious bases. This will pose a serious risk for Palestinians’ security,” Mismar underlined.
“We are witnessing today a historical change that affects the democratic architecture on which Israel has built its democracy over the years. The same meaning of Judaism is at stake, which sees all human beings created in the image of God. Religious Zionism has changed the rule of the game by pursuing an all-encompassing and uncompromising vision.” Rabbi Arik Asherman is a faith-based activist who has been for decades at the front line to withstand the intimidation and violence of ultra-right religious groups against Palestinians and is a well-known critical voice against the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank.
Since 2017 his NGO Torah Tzedek supports Palestinian farmers and shepherds through physical interposition to prevent attacks from settlers. His activities include lobbying within the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to bring awareness about the thorny problem of illegal settlements in the West Bank and bring a more comprehensive picture of the situation to the Israeli public.
For all these reasons, Rabbi Asherman has been assaulted by settlers several times and is constantly under threat. “For settlers, I am the enemy number one because, as a religious, I refuse to accept their vision of Zionism. I have become a target due to my support for the Palestinians, but they won’t stop me from persisting in what I believe is right to do.“
Rabbi Asherman strongly thinks that Judaism is a religion based on debates that advance through different opinions. He also considers that valuable questions nowadays are not related to absolute truths but to moral and religious values.
“The messianic message of these groups is so strong that there is not much room for negotiation. This is why their approach -with us or against us- risks splitting the society within Israel,” says Asherman.
The dramatic rise of Smotrich and Ben Gvir has been possible thanks to voters willing to “hold their noses” and who preferred to support religious Zionism due to growing concern for security. But it was also the direct consequence of a meticulous and widespread presence within Israeli society and dedication to the cause by the groups connected to the religious Zionism.
The immediate consequence is a constant increase in settler violence in an atmosphere of impunity that has done nothing but transforms the problem of illegal settlements in the West Bank into a major political issue.
The village of Turmas Aya is a cluster of houses of about 4000 inhabitants in the hills halfway between Ramallah and Nablus, in the Palestinian Territories. Just past the village, an Israeli army outpost serves as a buffer zone between Palestinians and settlers. On the hill next to the village, the settlements of Adead and Geulat Tzion. A small valley in between serves as a “no man’s land” and is where most of the attacks occur. The zone remains a hotspot due to the extreme proximity between the settlements and the Palestinian population.
Last year reported the highest number of injuries and deaths in the West Bank since the United Nations began counting in 2005. During the reporting of this article, at least 200 Palestinians and one Israeli settler were killed.
“Settlers attack our olive groves almost daily, destroying the trees and threatening to kill us if we return to our lands,” says Naja, a 50-year-old Palestinian farmer who returned from Spain to pick olives on his family’s land. “My 25 years old son has never been able to enter his property, which has been ours for generations and in which I grew up with my father and my grandfather before us. For a few hundred people, the Israelis prevent tens of thousands from being able to approach their lands and continue with their lives.”
Palestinians in the West Bank have the right to access their land for only eight days each year during the olive harvest. The Israeli Army, says the ban is for security reasons and the safety of farmers.
The Israeli Army divided the Palestinian Territories into three zones. The yellow zone, where internationals and Israelis are not allowed to enter, but the Palestinians can move with no restrictions. The blue zone, where Palestinians are allowed but is highly discouraged because of security reasons. The red zone prevents Palestinians from entering under certain circumstances and is used at the discretion of the Army.
“The Israeli soldiers justify their presence as a form of protection against us. The reality is those who are protected are the settlers, who are becoming more daring and aggressive,” said Manal, a 36 years old Palestinian from the village of Turmas Aya.
Like Manal, many other Palestinians who live around the settlements are experiencing the intimidation of the most violent groups of settlers on daily bases.
“A few months ago, the settlers attacked and beat my husband right outside our house, a few hundred meters from the outer perimeter of the settlement of Geulat Tzion. He suffered a concussion to the head and has the hip and knee dislocated because of the attack. If my neighbours hadn’t rushed over to protect him, I would be a widow by now,” says another woman who preferred to remain anonymous.
While climbing the hill to reach the Palestinian olive groves you can see scores of uprooted or poisoned trees. The scorched earth tactic by the settlers destroyed already thousands of Palestinian olive trees over the years. And given the rise of religious Zionism within the Israeli political spectrum, according to many in the West Bank, the situation will only deteriorate.
The concerns of Palestinians like Manal appear to be increasingly close to reality. In recent weeks, the soon-will-be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already promised his allies of the far right that all the illegal settlements will be recognised in the first sixty days of the new government.
Furthermore, new Knesset members Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, bolstered by the election result, included in their program unconditional support for an intensification of the military capacity of the IDF’s activities in the West Bank, the change of rules of engagement in the Palestinian Territories, the increase of repressive measures used against the Palestinians Authority.
“The future does not bode well, but we will not give up an inch of our land. This is our fatherland, and we are not leaving for any reason,” says Mohammed, an 83-year-old Palestinian farmer as he looks the settlement up the hill. On the other side, the tangle of roads the settlers created to ease their movements downhill reminds Palestinians that they are here to stay too.
Nino Orto is a freelance journalist who specialises in the analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He is the editor-in-chief of Osservatorio Mashrek which provides insight and analysis on the Middle East