The view from the ground.

SWAT for Settlers

Meet the Brooklyn-born weapons instructor who's training West Bank Jews to pack heat and use it.

Rina Castelnuevo
Rina Castelnuevo
Rina Castelnuevo

TEL AVIV, Israel — Naomi and David Kaplan live with their five children in Bat Ayin, a pinpoint-sized, fenced-off settlement in the West Bank of Israel. Their village has around 150 families, most of whom are religious Jews.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Naomi and David Kaplan live with their five children in Bat Ayin, a pinpoint-sized, fenced-off settlement in the West Bank of Israel. Their village has around 150 families, most of whom are religious Jews.

Like their neighbors, David, a 49-year-old radio broadcaster, and Naomi, a 46-year-old former chemistry professor turned stay-at-home mom, practice all the Jewish holidays and eat only kosher food. They also dress modestly. But underneath the long skirts favored by Naomi and the tzitzit — knotted ritual fringes — worn by David, both also wear a concealed handgun.

The couple, American immigrants from Texas, are among a growing number of Israeli settlers who are arming themselves — a response, they say, to a swell of Palestinian violence that the Israeli government either cannot or will not protect them from. David carries a Steyr pistol; Naomi carries a Glock 19.

“You have to be aware at every moment. If you see an Arab walk up to you, you have to get into position to do something,” says Naomi. “We live with the fact that people are out to kill us. Despite that, we want to build a normal life for ourselves and our children. We certainly want our children not to be scared and not to feel in danger.”

Israelis may have an armed-to-their-teeth image, but in reality this is a nation with incredibly strict gun laws. Once an Israeli citizen completes mandatory army service at the age of 22 or 23, there are really only two ways to obtain a weapon — either work in a security-related job or be a West Bank settler.

“You can’t just walk into a gun store and buy a gun like you do in many states in the U.S.,” says Micky Rosenfeld, spokesperson for the Israel Police. “But in Judea and Samaria [the official Israeli designation for the West Bank], because of the dangers there … it’s possible to get a hold of a handgun or a pistol. It’s something that sometimes is necessary.”

The Israeli government — faced with mounting international pressure and assisted by close cooperation with Palestinian Authority security forces — has been quietly scaling back its presence in the areas it conquered from Jordan in 1967. Dozens of Israeli military checkpoints have been shuttered, and troop levels in the area have been cut to their lowest number in 10 years. At the same time, settlement construction is at a seven-year high. There are now more Jews than ever in the West Bank, and as the soldiers’ numbers dwindle, these Israelis are increasingly on edge.

The revived peace process, paradoxically, may make settlers like the Kaplans more focused on their self-defense. While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement on Monday, July 29 — while holding the hands of Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice* Minister Tzipi Livni — that talks would resume was hailed in Washington, many Israelis had a different reaction. They focused on the 104 Palestinian prisoners, several of them with blood on their hands, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to release in order to coax the Palestinians to the table. Many voices in the Israeli media expressed dismay that the hawkish prime minister would strike such a Faustian bargain.

“Chalk up yet another triumph for the terrorists,” wrote Michael Freund in the Jerusalem Post. “Ignoring virtually wall-to-wall public opposition, as well as warnings from the security establishment, the government voted by a wide margin to yield to Palestinian demands and let murderers go free. What a disgrace.”

Both Naomi and David say that they never would have dreamed of owning handguns when they lived in Texas. David says that the gun has not made him feel safer, but the nature of life in the Jewish state motivated him to learn how to use it.

“I was taught that guns are very dangerous, that guns kill people,” he says. “I was afraid of guns. And what changed my attitude here was the feeling that I have a responsibility to protect my brothers and sisters. That I’m not an individual. In America I thought of myself as an individual, and here I think of myself as part of a whole.”

* * *

Bat Ayin is part of the Gush Etzion bloc, a collection of about two dozen Israeli settlements squatting in the Judean Mountains, a 25-minute drive from Jerusalem. The Kaplans and I are talking in their shady backyard, which sits at the edge of a ravine. The land here — all stubble, rock, and pine — is striking in its sparseness.

On the other side of their backyard’s steep slope sits a Palestinian village, its clustered homes and mosque’s minaret practically within arm’s reach. The Kaplan’s 12-year-old daughter joins us, listening quietly while leaning on her mother’s lap.

David looks uneasily at his neighbors across the valley and admits that on many mornings, while drinking coffee on his patio, he has considered how easy it would be for a sniper in one of those buildings to take a shot at him. Yet both he and Naomi insist that while life in the West Bank has its dangers, they face no greater risk than their fellow Israelis in Tel Aviv or Haifa.

“There are two points to life here that I don’t think that we’ve reconciled,” says David, referring to all of Israel. “First of all, we want to live a normal life, and second, this is not normal. It’s anything but normal. It’s not normal, in an American, Western sense, to live among a people that wants to kill you.”

The couple’s protestations aside, being a motorist or pedestrian in the West Bank is significantly more perilous than across the Green Line, which marked Israel’s borders at its establishment in 1948. Signs of Palestinian fury are everywhere: Incidences of rock-throwing and Molotov cocktail-hurling are now on the rise, and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) projects 2013 will be the most violent year since the close of the Second Intifada in 2005.

To get a sense of the tension, one only has to travel out of Bat Ayin toward the Gush Etzion junction, a choking, crowded bottleneck of traffic that serves as the only gateway in and out of the settlement bloc.

The junction, where the major West Bank road of Route 60 meets the smaller Route 367, is a massive traffic circle ringed by restaurants, a gas station, shops, and a cut-rate supermarket. It’s also home to a popular hitchhiking post, where a handful of Israeli soldiers with assault rifles and full riot gear keep watch over the travelers hoping to catch a ride into Jerusalem.

The soldiers are here for a reason: The Gush Etzion hitchhiking post has been the site of a number of terrorist attacks over the years, many of them fatal. Naomi and David are well aware of this fact, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve armed themselves. While neither of them has ever had to fire their weapons, they’re not taking any chances. The couple recently completed a self-defense and handgun-training course that included lessons on how to fire while protecting a child, and what to do if they come under gunfire or hails of rocks while driving on the West Bank’s roads.

“I don’t think life is more precarious here, but it’s a different threat. It’s the roads and the trempiadas that worry me,” says Naomi, using a colloquial term for a hitchhiking post. She gestures to her daughter and adds, “I don’t let her go to [the nearby settlement of] Kfar Etzion alone. There are Arabs all over the place. So I tremp [hitchhike] with her and I tremp back with her.”

And at every point of that journey, Naomi has her handgun with her.

In Gush Etzion, as in much of the West Bank, transportation into Israel’s cities is slow. Most families have several children and only one car. Bulletproof buses make the 14-mile ride to Jerusalem from Gush Etzion junction every two hours, with the local lines that come into Bat Ayin arriving even more infrequently. To make up for the lack of public transportation, hitchhiking has become the norm of West Bank travel. Referred to locally as tremping, a bastardization of the English word “tramp,” the system here has its own set of rules and etiquette. At nearly every West Bank junction, there’s a trempiada, with dozens of teenagers sticking out their fingers and crowding around stopping cars to vie for a spot in the back seat.

It was at another trempiada, the Tapuach Junction in the northern West Bank, where 31-year-old Eviatar Borovsky was stabbed and then shot to death on April 30 by Salam Zagal, a Palestinian from the West Bank city of Tulkarm. Borovsky owned a gun and was wearing it unconcealed during the attack, but he wasn’t able to reach for it in time. Zagal stabbed him from behind and then grabbed the gun out of Borovsky’s holster, killing him with his own weapon. Zagal was apprehended by border police at the scene and in June was indicted for murder.

Borovsky had also signed up for a handgun-training course like the one completed by the Kaplans, but he was killed before the first session.

* * *

Yisrael Danziger, a Brooklyn-born settler who moved to Israel at age 19 to join the Israel Defense Forces, says the story of Borovsky should be a cautionary tale for any settler with a weapon. “Everything that happened [with Borovsky] is a classic example of what we tell people. If you want to carry a gun, you’d better be aware of what you’re doing,” he says. “Don’t even bother carrying it if you’re not going to be totally aware.… Otherwise it all becomes pointless.”

Danziger, 60, has lived in the West Bank for 40 years and founded Mishmeret Yesha (“Guardians of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza”), an umbrella organization committed to settlers’ self-defense. Its services come in equal parts armament and education: It has a factory producing riot gear, it offers classes in the famed Israeli street combat tactic of krav maga, and it has trained and armed first-response teams, which can now count 4,000 settlers among their ranks, to swoop in on settlements when conflicts with Palestinians arise.

Mishmeret Yesha, which espouses an ideology rooted in the Torah, has an uncompromising attitude when it comes to making a deal with the Palestinians. “Every grain of sand and every stone in the Land of Israel are holy to the Nation of Israel,” its founding principles read. “No authority is allowed to relinquish any portion of the land.”

Danziger sees the current situation in the West Bank as an extreme kind of turf war, something he is quite familiar with. He grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, back when Hasidim were still streaming in after World War II, scrapping with the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who also called the New York City neighborhood home. “They used to put up parking spaces in driveways in Brooklyn that said, ‘Don’t Even THINK About Parking Here!'” he tells me. “That’s what it’s got to be here: Don’t even think you can attack us. You have no business here, and you’re not to even think you can get away with it.”

Palestinians, he tells me, have a new sense of bravura and are becoming more reckless in their attacks on Jews. “It’s in their interest to harm us,” he says of the Palestinians. “It’s in their complete belief system.”

There is no doubt that violence is on the rise. The IDF projects that there will be more than 6,000 incidences of rock-throwing in the West Bank in 2013, as well as 810 Molotov-cocktail incidents and more than 3,700 riots. Settler violence against Palestinians is also at an all-time high, having increased more than 144 percent since 2009. These incidents include the scorching of Palestinian crops, so-called “price tag” attacks, anti-Arab graffiti scrawled on Palestinian property, and brutal beatings. Palestinian activists say that Israelis act with impunity in the West Bank, with the IDF turning a blind eye to or even being complicit in settler violence.

“The biggest problem, in my view, is not simply that settlers can obtain weapons but that they can use them against Palestinians with little or no repercussions,” says Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the nonprofit Jerusalem Fund, whose educational arm, the Palestine Center, works to promote the Palestinian narrative of the Middle East conflict. “There is no deterrent force preventing settlers from regularly attacking Palestinians. This is why settler violence often happens in front of or in cooperation with Israeli soldiers.”

Danziger believes perspectives like Munayyer’s are nonsense. The IDF is not aiding settlers in anything, he says, much less attacks on the Palestinians. In his view, because of depleted troop numbers and strict military codes of conduct, the IDF isn’t doing enough. He cites the Israeli military’s regulation for responding to rock-throwers, which include being unable to respond with force until a rock actually hits its target and wounds a civilian, as a prime example.

“You can’t say the army isn’t doing anything. But their hands are tied. Obviously they’re not effective,” he says.

Danziger founded Mishmeret Yesha in 1988, while the First Intifada was raging across both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian protesters then were generally lightly armed — their weapons of choice were stones and Molotov cocktails, rather than the suicide belts and machine guns of the Second Intifada. Even so, in the First Intifada, about 100 Israelis died in the violence, while Israeli forces killed close to 1,000 Palestinians.

Nevertheless, Danziger says, it was a terrible time for settlers. Stones rained down on Israeli cars, and their shops and businesses burned. At first, the organization was an ad hoc legal counsel that helped orchestrate the legal defense of settlers who had fired on Palestinians and found themselves in court.

The intifada’s flames eventually died down, but the next period marked an even greater expansion of Mishmeret Yesha’s activities. With the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, it was clear the mood in the West Bank had shifted: Settlement expansion was clipped, while discussions abounded about land swaps and evacuations that could result in the settlers losing their homes.

Israel and the Palestinians, Danziger says, emerged from the First Intifada with the bitter realization that peaceful coexistence was a thing of the past. So he instructed Mishmeret Yesha to dig in its heels, combining all its organizations under one umbrella in 1995 and focusing primarily on two areas: civilian self-defense and the planting and harvesting (and therefore claiming) of contested land. They also began training and equipping their first-response teams: The units are now essentially settler SWAT teams outfitted in custom gear for the climate and terrain of the West Bank, M-16s, and of course the kippot of religiously observant Jewish men.

* * *

These days, if there is a skirmish in a settlement, the first people to hear about it are Mishmeret Yesha’s first-response teams. The IDF, Danziger says, has handed them de facto power to be first on the scene. He goes so far as to claim that Israeli soldiers generally wait for a go-ahead from the settlers before entering communities, despite having the full authority to come in whenever they like. “In life, I was taught that if you want something done, do it yourself. That’s what it comes down to,” he says.

The IDF, however, refuses to confirm Danziger’s statements and says that the only first-response teams it sanctions in the West Bank are those made up of its own reserve soldiers.

For women in the settlements, as well as men who cannot or do not want to join first-response teams, Mishmeret Yesha’s defense courses range from beginning handgun use to advanced anti-terrorism tactics. Entire families sometimes enroll, with children in their early teens learning how to use a weapon alongside their parents.

Rosenfeld, the police spokesperson, says that while there is a clear and present danger facing many West Bank settlers, they have by no means been abandoned by the Israeli authorities.

“I can tell you that in fact there has been an increase in Israeli police operations in Judea and Samaria, in coordination with the IDF, in order to prevent incidences [of violence] there,” he says. “There are more patrols, and more units working in different areas.”

Back in Bat Ayin, Naomi says that she feels an intense need to protect her fellow settlers and a responsibility to know how to defend her children and their friends. That sense of neighborly concern, she says, came to haunt her after Borovsky’s death.

“After Borovsky’s murder I had a dream. And I dreamed that I was there at the trempiada and I dreamed that I saw it going down and I pulled out my gun to protect him,” she says. “And in my dream I was crying at the funeral and saying, ‘I’m sorry that I didn’t get there in time.’ That’s why I took the handgun course — to get there in time.'”

Correction (Aug. 1, 2013): An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Tzipi Livni as Israel’s foreign minister; she is actually the justice minister. (Return to article.)

Debra Kamin is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.

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