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West Bank settlers unwavering in support for Israeli government

To a 60-year-old settler, the attack launched by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, which left 1 200 dead, was not a failure of those in power.

White-bearded and wearing a crocheted kippah on his head, Israeli settler Moshe Goldsmith is unshakeable in his support for the government, despite widespread criticism of its failure to prevent the bloody attack by Hamas on October 7.

“I’m a religious, Orthodox Zionist,” he said, adding that “more than anything”, what mattered to him was a political party’s support for settlers’ point of view.

To Goldsmith, 60, the unprecedented attack launched by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, which Israeli officials say left 1,200 people dead, was not a failure of those in power.

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Rather, it stemmed from the “terrible tragedy” of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the departure of the roughly 8,000 Israeli settlers who lived there at the time.

Part of the problem, according to the former mayor of Itamar, an Israeli settlement near the city of Nablus in the occupied West Bank, was “that we didn’t have a presence there”.

“If you’re not there, you don’t know what’s going on,” Goldsmith said.

In response to the attack, Israel has vowed to eliminate the Palestinian militant group, launching a major bombing campaign and ground offensive in Gaza that the territory’s Hamas government says has killed more than 16,000 people.

If Goldsmith is certain of anything, it’s that the best way to protect Israel is to forge ahead with the construction of settlements in the West Bank, where about 490,000 settlers live among about three million Palestinians.

– Surge in violence –

In Itamar, a new neighbourhood has just gone up with the approval of the Israeli government, and more projects are under way.

Like all the settlements in the West Bank, Itamar is considered illegal under international law.

Founded 40 years ago, it has been the scene of several Palestinian attacks that killed 16 people over the years, according to Israeli government figures.

But with its play area, multipurpose room, synagogue and, now, a high-tech factory that has diversified employment options for residents, the small settlement seems quite peaceful these days when viewed from within.

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Since October 7, the West Bank has seen a surge in violence, with at least 258 Palestinians killed by either the Israeli army or settlers, according to a tally from the Palestinian Authority.

The NGO Human Rights Watch says violence committed by settlers has intensified during the same period.

The situation has unsettled Israel’s Western allies. On Tuesday, the United States announced it would refuse visas to extremist Israeli settlers who attack Palestinians.

That made little difference to Goldsmith. “The world has created this lie that’s turning the settlers into some kind of violent people,” he said dismissively.

– ‘Not to our credit’ –

But not everyone takes the same view. A few kilometres (miles) away in the settlement of Elon Moreh, rabbi Nissim Atyias, a resident for 41 years, denounced those “who take action against the Arabs that is not always in self-defence”.

“That exists,” he told AFP at his home in the community of around 2,000 people, and “it’s not always to our credit”.

Still, he thinks he would vote again for the “current leadership”, a coalition led by conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties whose support of settlers is unswerving.

While he has been “asking questions” about the present state of leadership, Atyias said he welcomes the current sense of national unity.

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Born in Turkey, Atyias speaks with his mother in Ladino, the language of Spanish Sephardic Jews. After his studies in France, he became a rabbi in Meudon, outside Paris, before moving to Israel in the 1970s.

In his living room, in front of portraits of his descendants, he described a “divine mission” — to “live in this country that God has given us”.

His wife Rachel, born in Algeria in 1945, said births in the family were “like popcorn”, springing up all over.

All of their six children likewise live in settlements.

Rachel is nostalgic for the beach in Gaza, which she visited on a trip to see relatives before 2005. Her husband hopes that once the war is over, settlers can return to the territory.

© Agence France-Presse

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