The Extreme Ambitions of West Bank Settlers
A leader of the settlement movement on expanding into Gaza, and her vision for the Jewish state.
or decades, Daniella Weiss has been one of the leaders of Israel’s settlement movement. Weiss became involved in settlement politics in the wake of the 1967 war. In the early seventies, her family moved to the settlements in the West Bank and she later served for a decade as mayor of Kedumim, a community in the north. She has also been arrested numerous times, including for assaulting a police officer and interfering with an investigation into the destruction of Palestinian property. More recently, she has been affiliated with the Nachala settlement organization, which helps younger settlers establish illegal outposts in the West Bank, an initiative that’s controversial even among the settler community. (Weiss is a neighbor and an ally of Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist minister of finance, who has said that the Palestinian people do not exist and that Palestinian communities need to be erased; he also lives in Kedumim.)
Weiss and I recently spoke by phone. Since the Hamas massacre of October 7th, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—in addition to invading Gaza—has, with its allies in the settler movement, become increasingly aggressive in the West Bank. Sixteen Palestinian communities have been removed from their land, and a hundred and seventy-five Palestinians have been killed. I wanted to talk to Weiss to understand the extremism of the settler movement, and her ultimate intentions for the West Bank. During our conversation, edited for length and clarity, we also discussed how her religious attitudes shape her view of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, why human rights should not be considered universal, and why she should not be expected to mourn for dead Palestinian children.
I was born in Israel in 1945, three years before the birth of the modern Jewish state. I was born in the Tel Aviv area.
And your parents?
My father was born in the United States. My mother was born in Warsaw, Poland, and she immigrated with her parents to Israel when she was a year old. So she came to Israel many years before the state of Israel was born.
How would you describe the settler movement?
I see the settler movement today as a direct continuation of the settler movement of a hundred and twenty, thirty, forty years ago. I see it as a chapter in the history of Zionism, and we are in one of those chapters of modern Zionism. Settlement is the way to return to Zion.
You said, “Settlement is the way to return to Zion”?
Yes. It’s the end of the dispersion and the beginning of the revival of the Jewish nation in this homeland.
What are the borders of that Jewish nation?
The borders of the homeland of the Jews are the Euphrates in the east and the Nile in the southwest. [This would include the territory of multiple Middle Eastern countries as well as the territory that Israel controls today.]
There’s a Palestinian slogan that has become very controversial: “From the river to the sea,” which means from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s controversial because it would include all the land that currently makes up Israel. But you’re saying from the river to the—
What is controversial?
Palestinians sometimes use the slogan “From the river to the sea.” But what you’re saying is that from the river to the Nile is the Jewish homeland, correct?
Of course. If someone decides to invent a new religion today, who will decide the rules? The first nation that got the word from God, the promise from God—the first nation is the one who has the right to it. The others that follow—Christianity and Islam, with their demands, with their perceptions—they’re imitating what existed already. So, why in Israel? They could be anywhere in the world. They came after us, in the double sense of the world.
When did you first get involved in the settler movement?
In 1967, in the Six-Day War. The Six-Day War was such a miracle, and aroused very deep feelings toward the birthplace of our nation—Hebron, Shiloh, Jericho, Nablus. And, because of the miracle of the war, we had this spiritual sensation that something happened in the dimensions of a Biblical scene. I felt that I wanted to be an active part in this miraculous happening. My husband didn’t like the idea of moving from Tel Aviv to the mountains of Judea and Samaria. He liked our life near Tel Aviv. But then, when the Yom Kippur War broke out, in 1973, I became involved in a very intensive way, and so did my husband.
We both became part of the settlement movement of Gush Emunim, the movement that established communities in Judea and Samaria. I forced my husband to follow me and our two daughters—they were little ones—to a tiny tent on the mountains of Samaria, where we all live today. Now we have a big family with four generations. My mother-in-law came with us, and then we have our daughters and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are all settlers in Samaria.
In a lot of these places where settlements have been developed, from 1967 to the present day, there have been Palestinian communities and Palestinian families. What is your feeling about where these people should go?
It’s the opposite. None of the communities in Judea and Samaria are founded on an Arab place or property, and whoever says this is a liar. I wonder why you said it. Why did you say that, since you have no idea about the real facts of history? That’s not true. The opposite is true. Who got this idea into your mind?
Palestinian communities have been removed from their land, kicked off their land by—
No, you never read things like that. No. There are no pictures. [According to a report by Btselem, an Israeli human-rights group, parts of Kedumim, where Weiss lives, were built on private Palestinian land; in 2006, Peace Now found that privately owned Palestinian land comprised nearly forty per cent of the territory of West Bank settlements and outposts.]
O.K. I’m a little surprised you are denying this. I thought you were going to say, “It’s O.K. to kick Palestinians off land because it belongs to the Jewish people.”
You did no homework before you interviewed me. Everything that you say is the opposite of my personality and my philosophy. You are interviewing a person, and you don’t know anything about them. It’s very strange. I’ve never encountered a situation like this.
I was trying to understand where Palestinians who live in the West Bank should go.
Why should they go? Why should they go?
They should stay where they are, you’re saying?
They should accept the fact that in the Land of Israel there is only one sovereign. This is the issue. So let’s not confuse things. We the Jews are the sovereigns in the state of Israel and in the Land of Israel. They have to accept it.
If they accept it, should they receive full voting rights and things like that?
In the state of Israel, they have the right to vote for the Knesset, because Ben-Gurion gave them this right. He trusted them—and, even if he didn’t trust them, he didn’t have much of a choice. Three years after the Holocaust, he wanted to have a state for the Jews, and he knew the world would make problems with the issue of voting. But, in the seventy-five years since independence, the Arabs in the state of Israel and the Arab members of the Knesset showed in every possible way that their idea is to establish a Palestinian state. They are not working for the interests of the state of Israel. So I think the Arabs in Judea and Samaria have no right to ask for rights or take part in elections for the Knesset. They lost their right to vote for the Knesset. They will never get this right. They will have their own Palestinian Authority where they can run their civilian affairs in a logical way, but not as members of the Knesset. No, no, no.
So rights are not some sort of universal thing that every person has. They’re something that you can win or lose.
You’ve been part of the settlement movement during a lot of different governments. How do you feel that the current government of the past year has been treating settlers broadly compared with past governments?
I will say that it’s better under Netanyahu. It doesn’t satisfy my ambitions and my dreams and my plans, but there are eight hundred thousand Jews—or settlers, if you want. So this gives me a lot of encouragement that from eight hundred thousand we will become two million, then three million.
When you say that the government’s been better, but it hasn’t realized your dreams, what are those dreams?
Two million Jews in Judea and Samaria. More settlements, more farms, bigger cities.
When you say that you want more Jews in the West Bank, is your idea that the Palestinians there and the Jews will live side by side as friends, or that—
If they accept our sovereignty, they can live here.
So they should accept the sovereign power, but that doesn’t necessarily mean having rights. It just means accepting the sovereign power.
Right. No, I’m saying specifically that they are not going to have the right to vote for the Knesset. No, no, no.
Can you talk about the settlement-outpost movement and your role in that, especially with young people that you’ve served as somewhat of an inspiration for?
A post is a basis for a bigger community. That’s the name of the game.
And why is that controversial, even among some settlers?
I don’t know that it’s controversial. Some might not know the process. And people say to me, “I want you to build a new outpost that will be as nice as the older one that we see.” I say to them, “It was a place with one family and now hundreds of families.” So this is how it started.
In Israel, there’s a lot of support for settlements, and this is why there have been right-wing governments for so many years. The world, especially the United States, thinks there is an option for a Palestinian state, and, if we continue to build communities, then we block the option for a Palestinian state. We want to close the option for a Palestinian state, and the world wants to leave the option open. It’s a very simple thing to understand.
When Israel pulled out of Gaza, in 2005, it also closed down settlements in the region. This was under the Sharon government. And there’s been talk by some settlers since October 7th about the need to repopulate Gaza with settlements. What are your feelings about what should happen with Gaza?
Right now, I’m on my way to a TV interview where I’m going to speak about our movement’s efforts to return to Gaza, the entire Gaza, and build settlements.
So you think it was a mistake to pull out of settlements nearly twenty years ago?
It was a mistake. The whole world is crying now because of that. The whole world suffers from Hamas’s rise. Not my problem. It’s your problem. No country in the world said they were going to accept even a thousand people from Gaza. The world hates them. It was such a big mistake to let them rise.
Where should the Palestinians in Gaza go?
To Sinai, to Egypt, to Turkey.
They’re not Egyptian or Turkish, though. Why would they go to Turkey?
O.K. The Ukrainians are not French, but when the war started they went to many countries.
Their country was being bombed, and so many of them fled west.
And Gazan people are dying to go to other places.
I think Ukrainians wanted to go to Europe because they didn’t want to get bombed.
And the Gazan people want to get bombed by us?
Maybe one option, rather than bombing them, would be to help try and develop a society for them in Gaza, right?
O.K., I wish you luck. Go ahead. Go for it.
Do you feel that Netanyahu and the people in his government are sympathetic to you and your cause?
He’s very sympathetic, but he is not as brave as we are.
What about Smotrich, and people like that?
They are brave, but the settlers themselves, which I represent in my movement, are more brave than them. [Smotrich is also a settler.]
We saw some horrible images on October 7th of what happened to Israeli children, and now we see some horrible images in Gaza of what is happening to Palestinian children. When you see Palestinian children dying, what’s your emotional reaction as a human being?
I go by a very basic human law of nature. My children are prior to the children of the enemy, period. They are first. My children are first.
We are talking about children. I don’t know if the law of nature is what we need to be looking at here.
Yeah. I say my children are first. ♦