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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
* * *
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
every point of that journey, Naomi has her handgun with her.
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
Borovsky had also signed up for a handgun-training course
like the one completed by the Kaplans, but he was killed before the first
* * *
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
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."
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."
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,
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
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."
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
"You can't say the army isn't doing anything. But
their hands are tied. Obviously they're not effective," he says.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.)