For an Israeli settlement that has become such a resounding symbol of religious and right-wing politics in the West Bank, Homesh doesn’t have much to do with it.

Three families live in tarp-covered shelters filled with bunk beds for about 50 young people, who study in a yeshiva that is a ramshackle prefabricated structure surrounded by abandoned toys, building materials and trash.

They live here part-time, among the ruins and garbage of a hilltop settlement demolished in 2005 by the Israeli army and police. It is one of four West Bank settlements dismantled when Israel withdrew all its troops and settlements from Gaza. Israel’s intention then, encouraged by Washington, was to signal that peripheral settlements that were too difficult to defend would be consolidated in any future peace agreement.

The decision to dismantle them is now being questioned by the most religious and right-wing ministers of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. They are campaigning to colonize more land in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and even remove Palestinians from Gaza to resettle there.

Homesh, perched in the hills above Nablus, has become a symbol of their determination.

Early last year, the Israeli government decided to re-legalize Homesh, but the Supreme Court then required the government to dismantle it once again and ensure that Palestinians who own the land it sits on can reach it safely. .

Instead, the settlers moved their prefabricated yeshiva to a small site on what is considered state or public land and are defying the court order, with the fervent support of the Shomron Regional Council.

It is settlements like these that Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has promised to expand, announcing late last week plans for 3,000 new homes, “deepening our eternal control over the entire land of Israel.” The Biden administration reacted immediately, opposing any expansion and calling existing settlements “inconsistent with international law.”

But after the Hamas attacks of October 7, settlements like Homesh embody the change in mentality among Israelis since those days, seemingly long ago, when dialogue with the Palestinians focused on a two-state solution.

The rise of Hamas in Gaza and the growing religious and right-wing trend in Israeli politics have changed that. After October 7, not only do more Israelis oppose an independent Palestinian state, but a larger minority favors further expansion of settlements, even in a reoccupied Gaza.

Emboldened, settlers like those in Homesh consider themselves a vanguard and drag the army behind them. Today, they are protected (and almost outnumbered) by bored Israeli soldiers, who say their orders are to keep the settlers and local Palestinians separated, to avoid further clashes and bloodshed.

“Our orders are to be a human fence between the two sides,” said one soldier, who requested anonymity to speak without authorization. “We try to keep them separate; We try to stop the settlers from going down the hill. And we tell the Palestinians: ‘You don’t need to be here.’”

The effect of the military presence is to keep Palestinians away from their land, and the new checkpoints severely damage businesses along Route 60, the West Bank’s main north-south highway that runs from Ramallah to Nablus and Jenin. .

The new settlers of Homesh believe they are taking back the land God granted to the Jews in biblical times and don’t care much what their own government thinks. They are hostile to journalists and have no interest in Palestinian beliefs or property titles.

Palestinians who live in villages under Homesh and who own most of their land say the settlers are aggressive and violent. Sometimes armed with rifles, settlers intermittently engage in housebreaking, sheep stealing and vandalism. They cut down olive trees, roll burning tires down hills to burn crops and even send wild boars to dig up Palestinian seedlings and fruit trees, locals say.

Salah Qararia, 54, showed visitors the broken windows and doors of his house, on his own land about 200 meters downhill from Homesh. Settlers armed with guns have come often, shouting racist insults and throwing stones, and have uprooted some of his 600 fruit trees, he said. So he has sent away her wife and her seven children and is staying in the house to take care of her, and he has bought some dogs to try to scare away the wild boars.

“They are trying to scare us,” Qararia said. “They want to try to take over the house and the land.”

Are you complaining to the military or to the Palestinian Authority, which exercises civilian control over parts of the West Bank? The river. “The Palestinian Authority is powerless here,” he said. As for the army, “you can’t talk to them, you can’t contact them. And they would surely take his side.”

Qararia and his neighbors have a WhatsApp group to warn each other if settlers are approaching, he said. “But it is very dangerous to come and help.” The settlers have weapons, she said. “We do not.”

He said he had sometimes seen soldiers trying to restrain settlers, who pushed them. “They don’t listen to the soldiers,” she said.

Most of them came after Netanyahu’s re-election in 2022, he said. They have received support from far-right ministers such as Smotrich, who has long wanted to rebuild Homesh, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister.

“The settlers are seeking delegitimization of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal,” said Amnon Abramovich, an Israeli commentator on Channel 12. “Why disband the four in the West Bank?” It was a sign from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “that he would evacuate many more in the years to come.”

Like Yitzhak Rabin, Sharon wanted to remain in the West Bank but gather outlying settlers into three defensible settlement blocks, eliminating outposts that were overwhelming the army’s resources, Abramovich said.

But Sharon suffered a stroke soon after and, under successive governments, settlement activity accelerated.

Jihad Moussa, 46, who sells construction materials, is building a house on his land on the hill near Homesh. But about eight months ago, 30 settlers with butcher knives and wire cutters, some with M16 rifles, took all the aluminum windows and doors, stole the water pumps, “and what they couldn’t take, they broke, including the marble of my new staircase,” he said.

He showed video that he said was taken from his store’s security camera and showed settlers breaking the windows of a car and a truck. He said he went to the Israeli police with the video, which The New York Times could not verify, but that the police never called back.

He now lives in the city, in an old house damaged by water, and is afraid to continue building his new home. “I’m afraid to live there,” he said, fearing for his wife and children.

When asked to comment on Homesh and allegations of settler violence, the Israeli military said in a statement that army and police officers, when “faced with incidents of violation of the law by Israelis, especially incidents violent incidents or incidents targeting Palestinians and their property, must act to stop the violation and, if necessary, detain or arrest suspects until the police arrive on the scene.”

“Any claim” that the military “supports and enables settler violence is false,” the statement continued. Palestinians can also file a complaint with the Israeli police, according to the statement.

Ghassan Qararia, head of the Al Fandaqumiya village council, said he gave the owners a tax break “to make them firm with the land and build on it, but they are too scared.”

Abdel Fatah Abu Ali, mayor of nearby Silat Ad-Dhahr, also located under Homesh, said that since October 7, Israeli military checkpoints to protect settlers had severely damaged trade and travel along Route 60.

“Now I can’t even go to Nablus or Ramallah,” the mayor said. “I cannot go to Al Aqsa to pray,” citing the Jerusalem mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. He laughed bitterly. “Did the settlers close the road? No, it was the army that protected them. There is no difference between them.”

Abu Ali, 65, lived for a time in the United States. “There I felt the taste of freedom,” he said. “Now here is the taste of hell.”

The Palestinian Authority was “useless,” he said. “My government is corrupt. They are the Harvard University of corruption.”

The Homesh issue is increasingly sensitive, even among settlers, who feel they receive hostile media coverage.

Some members of the Homesh agreement had agreed to speak with me, but when Esther Allouch, the spokesperson for the Shomron Council, learned of my plans to visit, she said she would cooperate only if I provided appointments for her approval and promised not to include any Palestinians in the agreement. agreement. my report.

I did not agree to their conditions. Ms. Allouch then refused to cooperate and discouraged others from doing so, Telling the settlers not to invite us in, they said. Only after a call to the Israeli commanders did the soldiers agree to let us enter.

The students, warned, refused to speak. But Avihoo Ben-Zahav, 26, visiting Homesh from a nearby settlement after serving reserve duty in the army, spoke freely.

“We are here because of our love for the entire land of Israel,” he said. “The fact that people were expelled from this village is a wound that still bleeds.” Pointing to Tel Aviv in the distance, he said Homesh was “one of the most beautiful and strategic places in the country.”

“We are here because God gave us this land in the Torah,” he said. “It will be better for the Palestinians if we are safe in our place.”

Local Palestinians vow to preserve what is theirs.

Salah Qararia, who remains in his destroyed house to protect it, said firmly: “I will never abandon the land, even if I die defending it.”

Nathan Odenheimer contributed reports from Homesh and Shavei Shomron, and Rami Nazzal by Silat Ad-Dhahr and Al Fandaqumiya.

By Sam