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For the sake of the Temple: Israel's messianic settlers

For the sake of the Temple: The rise of Israel's messianic settler movement
11 min read
West Bank
01 June, 2022
In-depth: Every year, thousands of Israeli extremists take part in the controversial 'flag march' in Jerusalem. But this is only the most recent expression of a century-old movement with a growing influence in Israeli society and politics.
The Israeli 'flag march' was started in 1968 by students of the 'Merkaz Harav' Messianic religious school [Getty]

Israeli flags, racist anti-Arab slogans, provocative group dances, and prayers marked 'Jerusalem Day' last Sunday.

Thousands of Israeli religious settlers roamed the streets of the Old City in the so-called ‘flag march’, commemorating Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem fifty-five years ago.

Israel deployed over 3,000 border police troops in the city for the occasion, and arrested some 100 Palestinians days before the event, expecting confrontations with Palestinians. The day ended with some 40 Palestinians injured and 50 more arrested.

Last year, the 'flag march' triggered a larger escalation in the country, including an eleven-day-long military confrontation in Gaza. Israeli bombing killed 248 Palestinians including 66 children, 39 women, and 17 elderly people, and caused large-scale destruction in the already-devastated Gaza Strip. Palestinian rockets killed 13 Israelis.

This year’s ‘flag march’ took place following escalations during Ramadan. Confrontations at the Al-Aqsa mosque between Palestinian worshipers and the Israeli police raiding the sanctuary marked the second half of the Muslim holy month.

Hundreds of Palestinians were injured or arrested in the almost-daily forcible evacuation of the compound by the Israeli police to make way for Israeli religious settlers to storm the sanctuary. One Palestinian youth was seriously wounded by Israeli police and died of his wounds three weeks later.

From incursions into Al-Aqsa to the ‘flag march’ and daily attempts to expel Palestinian families from Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, upheaval in Jerusalem has always had one driving factor at its heart: Israeli ultra-religious, ultra-nationalist settlers.

But contrary to popular perception, confrontations around the Al-Aqsa compound, and Jerusalem as a whole, are far from being a clash of two religious communities claiming the same holy place.

Israeli settlers who storm Al-Aqsa and participate in the 'flag march' are, despite their religious component, part of a political phenomenon which is deeply rooted and increasingly influential in Israeli society and politics; messianic religious Zionism.

Israeli extremists dance and sing racist chants as they take part in the annual Flag March by Damascus Gate on 29 May 2022. [Getty]
Colonisation and political messianism

Traditionally, religious Jews had opposed political Zionism since its beginnings in the late 19th century for theological reasons. As Yakov Rabkin explains in his book 'A Threat From Within: A Century Of Jewish Opposition To Zionism', religious Jewish leaders opposed political Zionism on the grounds that it had transformed Jewish identity from a spiritual, religious one, to a secular, nationalistic one.

According to traditional religious Jewish teachings, the people of Israel would come to constitute a kingdom only after the advent of the Messiah, and as part of divine redemption, not as an earthly political project. This religious stand, however, was going to change for many Jews as the Zionist colonisation of Palestine materialised during the British mandate in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1921, Abraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook became the first Ashkenazi (western Jewish) chief rabbi of Palestine. Contrary to the established traditional religious position, Kook thought that the creation of a Jewish state would trigger the Messianic process; one that would culminate with the reconstruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa mosque has stood for centuries.

Kook died in 1935 and was succeeded by his son, but not before founding the ‘Mercaz Harav Yeshiva’ religious school, dedicated to the teaching of his new brand of Jewish messianism. His disciples grew into a new phenomenon that paved the way for a political movement which just needed the right moment to burst into existence.

1967: A turning point

That moment came in June 1967. As the armies of three Arab countries collapsed in unorganised retreat, the Israeli army swept across the map in a lightning attack, invading the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Syrian Golan Heights, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula and most importantly: Jerusalem's Old City. For a group of Israeli soldiers who entered the Al-Aqsa compound victorious it was a moment of euphoria; messianic euphoria.

For Muslims, Al-Aqsa is their third holy place; the place from where Prophet Muhammad ascended to the heavens to receive revelation. For Jews, the location is known as the ‘Temple Mount’, where King Solomon had built the first Jewish temple.

Israeli soldiers who entered the courtyards of Al-Aqsa in the afternoon of that 5th of June saw themselves as the first Jews to step on the hill where the temple once stood since its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD, a feeling that ran throughout Israeli society.

Jewish political messianism suddenly expanded beyond Rabbi Kook’s school and its students. Convinced of their divine mission, messianic religious Israelis began to establish settlements across the West Bank, especially in Nablus and Hebron, and were often evacuated by the Israeli army.

The official stand of the Israeli state at the time was that settlements could only be implemented by the state and with the government’s approval.

The Israeli government, however, often complied with religious settlers. Immediately after the occupation in 1967, it approved the building of the first units of what later became the Gush Etzion settlement bloc southwest of Bethlehem, after lobbying from religious activists like Moshe Moskowitz.

In 1970, the Israeli government also approved the building of ‘Kiryat Arba’ settlement, just outside Hebron’s old city, precisely to allow religious activists to settle in Hebron without having direct contact with Palestinians in the old city. A decade later, settlers from Kiryat Arba moved into the old city anyway

Right-wing Israeli Rabbi Moshe Levinger (L) and settler leader Hanan Porat celebrate after the government agreed to their demands to set up the first Jewish settlement in Nablus in 1975. [Getty]

'Gush Emunim': Settlers planning on their own

However, the religious settler movement began to grow sceptical towards the Israeli government after the October 1973 war between Israel and the coalition of Syria and Egypt. As Egypt began to make moves towards negotiations, supported by the United States, fears grew among religious settlers that Israel would make concessions over some of the land it had occupied in 1967.

To oppose such a concession, a group of settlement activists, including some members of the National Religious Party ‘Mafdal’, founded the ‘Gush Emunim’ movement, or the ‘Bloc of the Faithful’, in 1974, heavily inspired by the ideas of Rabbi Kook and messianic Zionism.

Gush Emunim operated as an extra-government lobby group, and directly initiated the building of several settlements, like Kedumim, on the lands of the Palestinian village of Kufr Qadum, and Shvei Shomron, on the lands of the Palestinian village of Sebastia.

In 1980, Israeli security discovered a plot by a group of religious settlers, related to Gush Emunim, to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque in the Al-Aqsa compound. The group’s reputation was damaged in Israeli society. Gush Emunim did not officially dissolve but was gradually replaced by a new body known as the ‘Yesha Council’, which continued to carry out the practical role of Gush Emunim.

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The Oslo Accords, Hebron, and religious disenchantment

In 1993 a new political era began that angered the Israeli messianic religious movement; the Oslo Accords and their aftermath. As French journalist Charles Enderlin explains in his investigative work, made into the documentary film ‘In The Name Of The Temple’, religious settlers felt betrayed at the Israeli withdrawal from city-centres like Nablus and Ramallah and their handing-over to the Palestinian Authority’s police.

But the biggest blow to the messianic settler movement was the Hebron protocol, signed in 1997 subsequent to the Oslo Accords. The agreement stipulated the division of Hebron into two areas. The ‘H-1’, area, where some 160,000 Palestinians lived, was handed over to the Palestinian Authority to police and administer.

As for the ‘H-2’ area, it remained under the direct control of the Israeli army, with limited service administration for Palestinians by the Palestinian Authority.

The ‘H-2’ area includes the old city, home to some 35,000 Palestinians, and where around 500 Israeli settlers from the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement established themselves in the late 1970s.

The Israeli army retained the old city, including the Ibrahimi mosque, a holy site for all three Abrahamic religions. It also maintained thousands of troops in the old city to protect the few hundred settlers, by imposing military control over 35,000 Palestinians. Yet, Israeli religious settlers considered the Hebron protocol a betrayal.

Charles Enderlin even documented a mourning ceremony organised in Hebron by settlers, with wailing, ash-throwing, and clothes-tearing, on the day Israeli troops withdrew from the H-1 area.

Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down in Tel Aviv after a peace rally on 4 November 1995 by a right-wing Jewish extremist Yigal Amir. [Getty]
Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir: Names of the 1990s

In the 1990s, characterised by the negotiations process and expectations of a final peace accord, two events illustrated the state of mind of many religious settlers as a reaction to the then-celebrated ‘peace process’.

The first was the massacre committed at the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, on a Ramadan morning in February 1994, where 29 Palestinian worshipers were killed by Baruch Goldstein. A 38-year-old doctor and supporter of the Zionist 'Kach' movement, he had immigrated from Brooklyn, New York, only nine years earlier and settled in Kiryat Arba.

Goldstein entered the mosque during the morning prayer and opened fire at worshipers from behind. After he emptied his rifle, he was overcome by survivors and beaten to death.

The second key event of the 1990s would have an immeasurable impact on Israeli society; the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, by Yigal Amir. A 35-year-old Israeli religious student of Yemenite descent, Amir shot Rabin twice at a rally in support of the Oslo accords. He was captured and later sentenced to life imprisonment.

Rabin is considered by many to be the last strong figure of the Israeli left. No Labor Party leader with his political force has emerged since. Instead, Israelis began a long turn towards the right, especially after the peace process collapsed and the Second Intifada broke out in 2000.

The religious settler movement then put its weight behind Ariel Sharon, who became prime minister in 2001, after provoking the Palestinian uprising by his provocative visit, surrounded by thousands of Israeli security forces, to the Al-Aqsa compound.

Sharon: The end of a unified Israeli right-wing

Sharon was a known figure to religious settlers. He had endorsed Gush Emunim in 1977, the year he became chairman of the inter-ministerial settlement committee. He had worked with Gush Emunim loyalists like Matityahu Drobles to officialise Gush Emunim's settlement plans and implement them as state plans, controlling water resources, critical road junctures, and breaking Palestinian demographic continuity in the West Bank.

In September 2005, Sharon carried out the ‘Gaza disengagement plan’, withdrawing Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. A few months later, in early 2006, he fell into a coma in which he remained until his death, eight years later. Although the Gaza disengagement caused Sharon widespread criticism amidst the settler movement, it never affected settlement progress.

According to figures by the Israeli 'Peace Now' movement, the number of settlers increased by 4,000 in 2005 compared to 2004, despite the evacuation of Gaza’s 21 settlements, rising from 243,000 to 247,000 in total. This means that the West Bank received in that year alone the equivalent of the 8,000 settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip, in addition to the 4,000 increase.

The number of settlers in the West Bank only increased after that, reaching 341,400 in 2012 and 451,700 in 2020. And with increasing numbers, came increasing influence.

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“After Sharon’s death. Israeli society continued to turn to the right,” Khalil Tafakji, a Palestinian expert on Israeli settlements, explained to The New Arab.

“Religious parties multiplied, creating an overwhelmingly right-wing political board, without a central force representing the right,” detailed Tafakji. “Instead, there is a collection of religious parties with ever-more settler members in them, making the settlers’ agenda the centre of Israeli politics”.

Since 2009, four governments have ruled Israel under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, all formed by volatile coalitions between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and other right and religious-right parties like Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, the Religious Zionism party, and the Jewish Home party.

Between 2019 and 2020, Israelis voted three times before a coalition was finally formed, only to be replaced months later by a fourth election. The religious right-wing 'Yamina' party came to power, led by Naftali Bennett, who is a settler himself.

Other settler members of the Knesset include Bezalel Smotrich from the religious Zionism party, who lives in the Kedumim settlement, Itamar Ben Gvir from the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, who lives in a settlement near Hebron, and Orit Strock, a settler activist who lives in Hebron.

The religious settler movement holds increasing sway over Israeli politics. [Getty]
Religious settlers in government: Setting the state's agenda

“The entrance of religious settlers into the political board in such a way has re-centred Israeli politics around their agenda,” Tafakji said. “The settlers' agenda, in addition to the West Bank, is about Jerusalem,” he points out.

“For decades, the religious settler movement has been allowed to act on the West Bank, while settlement in Jerusalem itself remained a state-run endeavour,” notes Tafakji. “Settlement plans in Jerusalem itself were elaborated mostly by the state under left-led governments since the 1960s, and based on those plans, the latest master plans were developed in the late 1990s,” he added.

These plans include the Jerusalem-2020 Master plan, which was commissioned in 1999 and announced in 2004, with the stated goal of preserving a Jewish majority in the city, aiming at a specific demographic composition of 70% Jews and 30% Palestinians.

“Settlement plans in Jerusalem haven't changed", says Tafakji. "What changed is that religious, and particularly messianic settlers now feel more encouraged to intensify their actions in Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa compound, their ultimate goal, and impose new realities”.

In late March, the Palestinian Jerusalem-based Al-Qastal agency documented that 4,263 Israeli settlers had stormed the Al-Aqsa compound during March. In early May, the Palestinian Islamic-Christian Commission for the Safeguard of Jerusalem reported that 4,700 settlers had stormed Al-Aqsa during April, coinciding with the first three weeks of the holy month of Ramadan. 

In October 2021, an Israeli court ruling allowed for the first time Jewish settlers to hold silent prayers on Al-Aqsa compound. Two weeks ago, another Israeli court ruling allowed non-silent Jewish prayers in the sanctuary. The decision was overruled by the Israeli appeal court last week.

Meanwhile, thousands of Israeli religious settlers roamed through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City again, marking the anniversary of Israel’s occupation and celebrating 55 years of their messianic movement, and its increasing influence within Israeli politics and society. 

Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Follow him on Twitter: @QassaMMuaddi