Inside the Israeli settlement being turned into a battleground by the hard-Right finance minister

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends an inauguration event for Israel's new light rail line for the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, in Petah Tikva, Israel, August 17, 2023
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and like-minded ultra-Right colleagues represent an increasingly potent force within Israeli politics - AMIR COHEM/REUTERS/REUTERS

‌He is the religious ultra-nationalist who has called for “sterile zones” around Jewish communities and for Palestinian youths who throw stones to be shot on sight.

He advocates a “Torah justice system” and was once arrested on suspicion of preparing to blow up a motorway in protest at what he saw as the soft treatment of Gazans.

He is also Israel’s finance minister – and anyone wondering about the direction of the conflict cannot afford to ignore what he says.

Bazelel Smotrich is not your traditional Israeli Right-winger.

The leader of the Religious Zionist Party formed a coalition last year with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, but has not been shy to take on the veteran prime minister in public.

Only this week he threatened to create a crisis within government by insisting on more security funds for Israeli settlements at the expense, his critics said, of the war effort.

“There are two million Nazis in Judea and Samaria [a provocative biblical reference to the West Bank area] who hate us exactly as do the Nazis of Hamas-Isis in Gaza,” he said.

Far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich walks with soldiers during a visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the border with Gaza on November 14, 2023, in the aftermath of an attack by Palestinian militants on October 7
Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, pictured second from left, walks with soldiers during a visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the border with Gaza on Nov 14 - GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/GETTY

He bitterly opposed allowing fuel trucks into the strip and, in comments that triggered international condemnation, described the “voluntary migration” of Palestinians in Gaza as the “right humanitarian solution”.

He said: “The State of Israel will no longer be able to accept the existence of an independent entity in Gaza.”

It matters because Mr Smotrich and like-minded ultra-Right colleagues from other factions prop up Mr Netanyahu, who faces the real possibility of a corruption trial once his premiership ends. They also represent an increasingly potent force within Israeli politics.

Mr Smotrich did not emerge from a vacuum.

The ideology now at the heart of Israel’s government has been thriving for decades in Jewish settlements on the West Bank.

None more so than in Smotrich’s home of Kedumim, a few miles to the west of Nablus.

Set amid steep hills coated in olive groves, the red-roofed community has long had a reputation for zealotry, even by the standards of the settlement movement.

It is home to firebrands such as Daniella Weiss, the daughter of ultra-nationalist Jewish terrorists and Kedumim’s first elected mayor, who is now a leading light in the Nachala initiative, a drive to encourage young Jewish couples to settle in “historic” Israel.

As for Mr Smotrich, his house is particularly controversial as it is set outside the formal footprint of the settlement, which is itself illegal under international law.

One Israeli NGO has claimed the property was built on stolen land.

Jewish-Palestinian tensions rise

According to local Palestinians, Mr Smotrich’s rise to the top of government has empowered residents in their oppression of local villages.

They said it is not uncommon for groups of around 100 settlers to rampage through the neighbouring non-Jewish communities, setting fire to buildings and cutting down the olive trees upon which the local livelihoods depend.

In the village of Kafr Qaddum, the mayor, Mahdi Qadoumi, has just received a letter from a local farmer complaining that 75 of his trees have been destroyed.

Sitting at his vast desk in the village council offices, he scrunches up a cigarette packet in frustration.

He says that, as a community, they should have harvested around 800 tonnes of olives this year, but in the end they produced only half.

“It’s every type of destruction you can think of,” he says. “They cut our trees, they destroy our wells. They are attacking us financially to try to make life so difficult for us that we move away.

“Smotrich being in government encourages more of this. It has got worse and worse over the past year.”

Learnt the hard way

As well as felling trees, the settlers from Kedumim are said to deny the villages access to swathes of their traditional land, particularly where it is situated close to the settlement.

Too many have learnt the hard way - the mayor’s uncle was shot dead in 2008 - not to take the risk.

The slow economic strangulation is obvious by the state of the village.

Once characterised by beautiful old stone buildings, year by year the aesthetic is changing.

Few now have the cash to pay for the maintenance of these traditional homes.

It is cheaper instead to let them fall into disrepair and build low-cost, ugly replacements.

Most of the cars are badly dented - hubcaps are missing. A feeling of dejection pervades.

Abu Amr, a former general in the Palestinian Authority, still wears the green military-style jacket and red and white keffiyeh.

He gives his friend Assem Qadoumi an encouraging rub on the shoulders as he explains how he no longer dares venture into the olive grove just outside his house after dark.

Activist and farmer Assem Qadoumi  in his olive orchards near the settlement of Kedumim
Activist and farmer Assem Qadoumi is seen in his olive orchards near the settlement of Kedumim - QUIQUE KIERSZENBAUM

“My house is the first they [the settlers] come to if they come into the village,” he says.

“They attack us - it’s humiliating, offensive. They limit the time we can work on the harvest. It takes at least a week to pick the olives, but they give us four days.”

Later, Mr Assem shows us the security cameras and motion-activated lights on the outside of his house.

“If they come I try to warn the others,” he said.

At another entrance to the village, looking up the hill east to Kedumim, he points out the scorch marks in the old Jordanian stone from the weekly protests by the men of the village which, the villagers say, are violently suppressed by the Israel Defense Forces.

The mayor says youths have been paralysed by rubber-coated bullets and live rounds.

A faded green house at the threshold of what the villagers consider to be relatively safe ground is pockmarked with bullet holes.

“We try to protect our children, but they participate, they want to go in the front,” says Mr Assem.

He bends down to pick up a used teargas cartridge, explaining how you can tell from the shape that it is fired by hand-held gun and not a jeep-mounted one.

Aggressively patrolled by the IDF

“It’s worse since January. It has really intensified.”

Many of the roads surrounding Kafr Qaddum have been closed. The blockages are aggressively patrolled by the IDF, many of whom are reservists from the settlement itself.

This includes the road to Nablus, an important centre for Palestinians.

It used to cost four shekels to get there by bus. Now, with the circuitous route, it costs 14.

The settlers have guns - lots of them. But they don’t need them, because they know that if Mr Assem and his colleagues put up any resistance they can fall back on the IDF and local security militia known as first responders.

When Bezalel Smotrich boasts of “sterile zones” around Jewish communities, it is perhaps possible to see in Kedumim a prototype of his vision.

After much protest, last week he reluctantly voted for Netanyahu’s hostage deal.

But his views on the desirability of peaceful co-existence are clear, not just from his rhetoric, but from the wreckage and fear generated in the lands around his home.

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