Carrying planks of plywood, a group of Israeli settlers pushed past soldiers guarding the barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip and quickly got to work. Within minutes, the young men had erected two small buildings — outposts, they said, of a future Jewish settlement in the war-torn Palestinian enclave.

Their movement had hungered for this moment for years, but now, after Oct. 7, they felt it was just a matter of time before Jews would be living in Gaza again. “It is ours,” said David Remer, 18. “[God] said it is ours.”

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A small group, including three people holding Israeli flags, walking near a high-security fence

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Soldiers standing by a tall security fence as civilians look for a way to pass

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Two soldiers picking up a struggling woman near a tall security wall as other troops stand by

1. Protesters march to a border checkpoint in Kerem Shalom, Israel, hoping to block aid shipments into war-torn Gaza. 2. Israeli troops stand by at Erez Crossing as activists try to enter the military buffer zone into Gaza. 3. Israeli troops remove a protester from a sit-in intended to block shipments of aid into the Gaza Strip.

Religious Zionists, who believe the Jewish people have divine authority to rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, make up only around 14% of Israel’s population. But in recent years they have greatly expanded their influence in the military, the government and society at large, and their often extremist ideology is helping shape Israel’s war against Hamas.

Although they are not politically homogeneous, most religious Zionists embrace far-right views. They loudly oppose a cease-fire deal to bring home Israeli hostages, and have repeatedly blocked humanitarian assistance from entering Gaza by standing in front of aid trucks.

They see the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel as proof of their longtime assertion that peace cannot be made with the Palestinians, and view Gaza as a territory that they have a religious obligation to conquer. Increasingly, they have called for the expulsion of the 2.3 million Palestinians living there.

Over a dozen people building small structures in front of a tall wall in the haze

Jewish settler activists hastily erect outposts inside the Israeli military’s buffer zone for the Gaza Strip at the Erez crossing.

First, they dream of reestablishing Gush Katif, a bloc of Jewish settlements that existed in Gaza until Israel withdrew from the enclave in 2005.

It’s a goal embraced by some of the top leaders in Israel’s far-right government, many of whom appeared at a recent Jerusalem rally pushing for Gaza’s resettlement. While videos played showing Israel’s brutal military assault on the enclave and organizers shared brochures promising new houses with views of the Mediterranean Sea, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir sang religious songs alongside participants and told them: “Now is the time to return home.”

On the battlefield, some religious soldiers have recorded themselves dancing with Torah scrolls and waving the orange flags of Gush Katif. Other combatants travel with mezuzahs, small boxes containing biblical Scriptures meant to be hung outside Jewish residences, to affix to Palestinian homes.

Reuven Gal, former chief psychologist for the military and a researcher at the Israel Institute of Technology, says that for many soldiers, the Gaza conflict that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians is “not just a military operation.”

“For them,” he said, “it’s a holy war.”

A hand pointing to a passage in English in the Torah, and a sprawling community in the valley below
Two men standing, looking at the scrolls of the Torah inside a synagogue

Top, Settler Avraham Sheinman, overlooking Nablus in the West Bank from Mt. Gerizim, points out passages in his Torah that he says show Jews have a religious obligation to conquer Palestinian territories. Bottom, Yishai Sheinman, left, and father Avraham Sheinman uncover the Torah in a synagogue in Yitzhar, West Bank. Yishai, 27, belongs to a violent extremist group devoted to expanding Israeli control of the region.

Yair Margolis, an army reservist who was called up from his yeshiva studies last year to fight in Gaza, said during a recent break from battle that the war had a clear spiritual dimension.

“Going back to that land is returning home,” he said. “This is where we are from, and this is what we are fighting for.”

It’s a vision starkly at odds with Israel’s mainstream, even as the country’s political center has shifted discernibly to the right in recent years. A January poll by Israel’s Channel 12 broadcaster found that 51% of Israelis oppose building Jewish settlements in Gaza, compared with 38% who support doing so.

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Itamar Ben-Gvir gives a thumbs-up and hugs a man as others stand by on a stage decorated with blue panels

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People dancing on the crowded floor of a convention

1. Israel’s national security chief and leader of the far-right Jewish Power Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, center, called at a recent convention for rebuilding Jewish settlements in Gaza and expanding those in the occupied West Bank. 2. The crowd celebrates at the Jerusalem convention, organized by far-right activists seeking expansion onto more Palestinian land.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing populist, has called settling Gaza “unrealistic.” But in 2022, as his ongoing corruption trials left him isolated, Netanyahu made a deal with several religious Zionist parties to form a coalition government, and his political future is now closely tied to theirs.

Beyond a pledge to maintain indefinite military control over Gaza and eventually turn over administrative duties to Palestinians, Netanyahu’s postwar strategy remains murky, leaving a vacuum, political analysts say, that the religious right is eager to fill.

About a dozen soldiers standing in the haze as others operate tanks near a security wall

Israeli forces arrive at the Erez border crossing next to the northern Gaza Strip.

In a recent video from Gaza circulated on social media, an Israeli soldier dressed in camouflage stands smiling with a machine gun in front of a bombed-out building. He directly addresses Netanyahu, who is widely known by his nickname “Bibi.”

“We are occupying, deporting and settling,” the soldier says. “Do you hear that, Bibi?”

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During the war in 1967, Israel captured a wide swath of Palestinian land that included the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Almost immediately, Jewish settlers began establishing communities in each of them, displacing Palestinians who lived there.

Three soldiers, one propped up on a roof brace, outside a small building, gazing down on communities in the valley below

Tuvia Levy, far right, and Marom Harel, center, look over Palestinian towns from a security outpost in Yitzhar, West Bank. Both men live in West Bank settlements and were called up for reserve duty after Oct. 7.

While the settler movement isn’t composed just of religious people, and over the years it has received backing from both right- and left-wing Israeli governments, it is ideologically driven by practitioners of Orthodox Judaism who believe God gave what they call the Land of Israel exclusively to the Jews.

Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, some of whom oppose the Zionist project and decline to serve in the military, religious Zionists embrace the teachings of rabbis who say believers have a spiritual imperative to expand Israel’s borders.

By 2005, around 8,000 mostly religious Zionists were living in Gaza, often in neighborhoods that resembled Southern California subdivisions, with their orderly rows of red-tile-roofed homes. The settlements were heavily guarded by the military, and residents frequently clashed with their Palestinian neighbors.

Amid growing concerns about high casualties among the troops tasked with protecting the settlements, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered a complete Israeli withdrawal from the enclave. Sharon, who was a supporter of settlers in the West Bank, now instructed soldiers to forcibly remove them from Gaza.

The “disengagement” from Gaza, with its scenes of screaming settlers being pulled from their homes and synagogues, was transformative for religious Zionists. Many vowed to gain more influence in the traditionally secular institutions they felt had betrayed them.

“For them it was a traumatic event,” said Yagil Levy, a professor of political sociology at the Open University of Israel. “They want to erase this trauma by any means.”

People sitting in what's left of a room as others survey the rubble of bombed-out buildings

Palestinians take in the rubble left by an Israeli airstrike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah, Gaza Strip.

(Fatima Shbair / Associated Press)

That meant building a political movement that has sought “to push the government as far right as it can go” and “completely demolish any talk of a Palestinian state,” said political scientist Dahlia Scheindlin. Over time, she said, ideas that once seemed extreme — like expanding settlements in the West Bank — became normalized.

Helping their cause were the country’s changing demographics: Religious Zionists, like the ultra-Orthodox, were having children at a much higher rate than their secular peers.

At the same time, they were making new inroads in the army.

The military academy that has become the West Point for the religious right is built atop a wind-swept hill in the West Bank settlement of Eli. Here, young men wearing yarmulkes spend their days studying both the Torah and military strategy.

For many years, religious Zionist families were hesitant for their sons to fulfill Israel’s mandatory three-year army service, worried that exposure to secular peers would erode their faith. This school, Bnei David, promised to minimize that risk, offering teenage boys a chance to fortify their religious beliefs before entering the military. Its website boasts of starting a “quiet revolution in the Israel Defense Forces.”

Young men in yarmulkes study at row after row of book-filled desks.
At Bnei David in the West Bank settlement of Eli, young religous Zionist men study both the Torah and military strategy; the academy’s website boasts of starting a “quiet revolution in the Israel Defense Forces.”

Students are taught that God “wants a people of Israel, and there is no state of Israel if there isn’t a strong army,” said Rabbi Eli Sadan, the school’s founder. They’re also taught by instructors who oppose the presence of women in the military and who have described gay people as “sick and perverted.”

Speaking from behind a large desk strewn with rabbinical texts, Sadan said he supports a scorched-earth military strategy in Gaza, “so Israel’s enemies will see the ruins and think: ‘I don’t want to mess with the Jews.’”

He is against the rebuilding of Palestinian society in Gaza, where at least half of all buildings have been damaged or destroyed during Israel’s fierce bombing campaign. “We must eliminate the possibility of Gazans returning,” he said, arguing that displaced civilians should be forced to live in tents for many years until they decide “to emigrate willingly.”

A closeup of a man with glasses and a white beard, holding his fists together near his face as he speaks
Young men in yarmulkes sitting at a table with books and papers, in front of a display with two rows of portraits

Top, Rabbi Eli Sadan, the founder of the Bnei David military academy, said he supports a scorched-earth strategy in Gaza. Bottom, Students attend a class in a room at Bnei David that honors alumni who died serving in the Israeli military. The school has lost 18 former students in the Gaza war.

Sadan said his school, which recently hosted events with both Netanyahu and Israel’s defense minister, has produced 3,000 soldiers, more than 50% of whom have risen to the rank of officer or higher. Since the conflict broke out, 18 alumni have died in Gaza.

The rise of religious military academies like this one has dramatically changed the makeup of the army, said Levy, the sociologist. Religious Zionists made up about 3% of officer school graduates in 1990, Levy’s research shows; in 2018, they accounted for over a third.

Levy, who has written about what he calls the “theocratization of the Israeli military,” said the trend has caused conflicts, with some religious soldiers refusing to serve alongside women.

A young man wearing shorts does push-ups in the dark and rain on an athletic field.

A student does push-ups at the religious and military academy for religious Zionists.

A pressing question, he said, is whether religious soldiers would comply with orders to forcibly remove Jewish residents from a settlement — a scenario that could play out under the creation of a Palestinian state.

Sadan said he teaches his students to always heed commands from military superiors. But during the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, other rabbis called on soldiers to refuse orders, and some did.

“What we see is growing resistance in the ranks,” Levy said. “They’re trying to challenge the formal codes of the military.”

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Those hoping to establish Jewish settlements in Gaza say they will model their strategy on the West Bank, where today 500,000 settlers live among 3 million Palestinians.

Since Oct. 7, tensions here have been simmering as the line between settlers and soldiers has become increasingly blurred.

A man in a yarmulke holding a long gun and looking down from a hill to a city below

Reservist Yosef Shalom Sheinman, 30, was called up after Oct. 7 to help protect Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where he lives.

After the Hamas attack in southern Israel killed around 1,200 people, hundreds of thousands of Israeli reservists were called up for duty. Many reservists in the West Bank were instructed to don uniforms and guard their own communities.

Among them were Yosef Shalom Sheinman, 30, who is from Har Bracha, a mountain settlement overlooking the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Sheinman’s parents helped found Har Bracha in 1987 amid protests from Jewish leftists and the Palestinians who once grazed sheep here. His younger brother, 27-year-old Yishai, belongs to a famously violent extremist group known as the Hilltop Youth, which is devoted to expanding Israeli control of the region. “These are kids who would eat Arabs for breakfast,” their father says proudly.

For decades, Israeli soldiers have been deployed throughout the West Bank to protect existing settlements, which most of the world considers illegal under international law. But the soldiers are also often instructed to stop the building of illegal settlement outposts. In the past, they sometimes clashed with Yishai Sheinman, tearing down new outposts he and his friends had erected.

A man and woman preparing food in a kitchen as one small child helps and another plays nearby

Like many religious Zionists, Yishai Sheinman, his wife, Rashid, and their children live in a settlement on Palestinian territory despite the disapproval of Washington and international law.

Now many of the soldiers in the region are his friends — or, in the case of his older brother, his family.

The reservists are not curtailing settlement expansion, the older brother said. Instead, they’re focused on patrolling nearby Palestinian villages — and making sure they aren’t growing. His unit recently cut a new road through a stretch of hillside between a Palestinian hamlet and Har Bracha, in effect claiming the area for the settlement.

“This is our land,” he said. “And God is with us.”

On a recent afternoon, Sheinman stood with his father, Avraham, taking in views sweeping from the peaks of Jordan to the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. Avraham Sheinman clutched a well-worn Torah, which he consulted frequently to highlight passages that he says show Jews have a religious obligation to be here. “We have a commandment to conquer it,” he said.

He spoke of a war with Palestinians, but also of “an inner war” within Israel.

“Who are we? What direction are we going?” he asked. “Are we going in the direction of our destiny as a chosen people in the Land of Israel — as a Jewish state according to Jewish law? Or are we a secular leftist copy of Europe or America?”

A soldier faces down one man as he approaches a tall security fence with troops on both sides

Israeli troops try to to stop one of many far-right activists from entering the Erez Crossing military buffer zone into Gaza.

Many on the other side of the political divide view that question with the same urgency.

In an interview with Sky News this month, writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari said the biggest threat to Israel is not Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran, but Jewish extremism: “There is really a battle for the soul of the Israeli nation between patriotism on the one side and ideals of Jewish supremacy on the other.”

It is too early to say exactly how the Hamas attack and the Gaza war will shape that debate. But early indications suggest they have awakened new support for the right.

Protests near the Egyptian border to halt aid delivery into Gaza were first organized by religious Zionists, but now draw secular participants. And while much of the international community holds out hope that the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza will one day be recognized as a Palestinian country, faith among Israelis in a two-state solution has dimmed.

A Tel Aviv University poll found that support for peace negotiations among Israeli Jews had fallen from 48% just before the Hamas attacks to 25% a few weeks after.

Troops standing in the way of people seeking to pass, including a man with a small child on his shoulders

Supporters of Jewish settlements talk with Israeli troops in an effort to enter war-ravaged Gaza.

Leaders of the religious right, meanwhile, are using the war as an opportunity to push through extreme policies.

Ben-Gvir, the national security chief, leads the Jewish Power party and has helped arm thousands of Israeli civilians by relaxing restrictions on gun ownership. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist Party, recently announced plans to expand settlements in the West Bank by more than 3,000 homes. Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted of inciting racism and supporting terrorism, live in the West Bank.

Life for Palestinians there has gotten markedly worse since Oct. 7, with more than 600 settler attacks against Palestinians recorded since the war broke out, according to the United Nations, and more than 1,200 Palestinians displaced from their homes.

Palestinian activist Issa Amro lives in the historic center of Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, in the midst of a heavily guarded Jewish settlement.

On the day of the Hamas attack, he was returning from work when several neighbors surprised him in an olive grove and began assaulting him. Some, he said, wore army uniforms probably left over from their military service.

A bearded man in a hat and puffer jacket standing, hands in his pant pockets, on a hill in the dark, city lights behind him

Palestinian Issa Amro says he has lived in fear since he was assaulted by settlers, then detained and beaten at a military base. He’s surrounded in Hebron, West Bank, by a heavily guarded settlement.

Amro was then taken to a military base, where he says he was detained for 10 hours and beaten.

He said he lives in fear. Every day he passes former Palestinian businesses shuttered by settlers, as well as a sign that says: “We’re occupying Gaza now.”

“Every meter I walk, I think I may be shot,” he said.

Amro said he doesn’t blame the settlers so much as the political leaders who have allowed the settlements to flourish. He pointed to Netanyahu, who allied with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, and to Donald Trump, who as president abandoned Washington’s long-held position that West Bank settlements violate international law. “Netanyahu made them mainstream,” Amro said. “The Trump administration made them mainstream.”

A soldier pictured from below the shoulders signals to several children playing outside, one with a bike

An Israeli soldier orders Palestinian children in the West Bank city of Hebron to go back inside, barring them from playing on the street.

President Biden has since reversed the U.S. stance on West Bank settlements — and recently imposed sanctions on four Israeli settlers for carrying out violence against Palestinians. And Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken says Washington opposes the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip by Israel and any reduction of the Palestinian territory’s size.

Joel Carmel, a former Israeli soldier who is now a peace activist, said the future of Jewish settlements in Gaza may depend on who wins the U.S. election in November.

“Probably the only thing holding back the resettlement of Gaza is the Biden administration,” he said. “And who knows how long that’s going to last.”

Many Palestinians in the West Bank think it’s only matter of time before Israeli settlers move permanently into Gaza.

A woman in a headscarf pointing over the buildings below from her vantage point next to a metal railing

Areej Al Jaabari, who lives in Hebron, West Bank, points toward the settlement where Israel’s national security minister lives.

Areej Al Jaabari, a mother in Hebron, has watched as settlements have crept ever closer to her family home. Ben-Gvir lives in a sprawling suburban community she can see from her living room window.

“They’re gradually accomplishing their goals,” she said of the settlers. “Eventually they will control everything in Gaza too.”

Linthicum reported from Jerusalem and from Yitzhar, Har Bracha and Hebron in the West Bank. Times staff photojournalist Marcus Yam contributed to this report from Erez Crossing, Israel.



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