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A settler’s vision: The Palestinians are trespassers, their homes must be demolished

Ben Lynfield
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Published: 28 January 2022

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Yochai Damri, chair of the Mt Hebron Regional Council, tells Ben Lynfield: ‘Our job is to kindle light, put settlements here, live here and fulfil prophecies. Then God will do his part’

FOR MOST OF the international community, the south Hebron hills region of the West Bank is part of an occupied area to be included in a future Palestinian state, where the presence of Israeli settlers contravenes international law.

But Yochai Damri, 57, chairman of the Mount Hebron Regional Council, sees things differently. This softly spoken man, who was educated in the national religious Bnei Akiva Youth Movement, speaks for at least 10,000 constituents, advocating what many jurists would consider to be crimes against Palestinian civilians.

Damri says he wants many, if not most, of the estimated 14,000 Palestinians living in the Israeli-controlled part of the south Hebron hills to be expelled from their homes and thrown into prison.

He says this without embarrassment or fear of repercussions, given the enormous clout ideological settlers like him and their backers in the Israel Defense Forces and government wield in today's Israel.

In an interview with The Jewish Independent, Damri explained that he and other settlers are living the legacy of the Patriarch Abraham, and that it is God's will that they live in and develop the biblically resonant landscape.

They must not only have their homes demolished, but also be placed in prison. There are small communities that must be taken apart.

Many of the Palestinians in the south Hebron hills are, he asserts, outsiders trespassing on state or otherwise off-limits land. Thus, they must not only have their homes demolished, but also be placed in prison, he says.

"There are small communities that must be taken apart," he says.

It doesn't bother him that settlers in the area also established outposts illegally on state land, some of which serve as springboards for attacking and harassing Palestinian civilians.

Damri denies there is settler violence and counters that the settlers are the ones under constant assault.

His stance towards his neighbours may sound harsh, but by local standards it is not. In September dozens of hooded settlers attacked the Palestinian hamlet of Mufaqara, wounding six, including a four-year-old boy who was hit in the head by a stone.

In an indication of how palpable the threat of settler violence has been in recent years, soldiers in the area have standing orders to protect a handful of Palestinian children on their daily walk from tiny Tuba village to school in nearby Tuwani. The IDF is concerned that settlers will attack the youngsters.

Damri contends that those who rampaged against Mufaqara came from outside the area of the council.

But there is no doubt he has little compassion for Mufaqara and says he wants to see it emptied, which is the very goal of the settlers who attacked it.

"He who has stolen and inhabits land that is not his needs to have justice done against him and he must be returned to the place from which he came," says Damri, arguably the most powerful person in the vicinity, with the possible exception of IDF commanders.

Susiya village in the West Bank
Susiya village in the West Bank

All residents of Susiya should also be expelled since they came during recent decades from other locals and trespassed.

All residents of the villages Tuba and Susiya should also be expelled since they came during recent decades from other locales and trespassed, Damri alleges, adding that most residents of Tuwani, a village of about 300 people, should also have their homes demolished and be forced out. "Those who have stolen must sit behind bars and return what they stole."

In Damri's account, most of the Palestinians living in these and other small villages in areas under full Israeli control in the south Hebron hills originally came as herders for several months a year from other locales. They did not acquire ownership during what he claims were short stays and when they decided to move permanently to the herding sites they did so as trespassers.

But all of the Palestinian Bedouin communities Damri is targeting for destruction existed well before any of the Israeli settlements were built, according to Alon Cohen-Lifshitz, a senior staffer specialising in the West Bank at the Israeli NGO Bimkom. Some date back to the 1930s and 1940s, he says, and labels Damri's account of the past as "propaganda".

In a very real sense, Damri espouses an ideology according to which all Palestinians living on what he perceives as Jewish land are implicitly illegitimate trespassers, although in practice he does not seek to expel them all.

He is even willing to let those who did not trespass (in his view) on to state land remain in Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control that must, in his view, be annexed. He proposes that after a process ranging from ten to 40 years, they could become Israeli citizens.

"To expel them now, certainly not. There is the desirable and the reality. I know this is a complicated message, but life is complicated," he says.

God has graced the Jewish people with so many miracles since the Holocaust-all of them a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, he believes. There will be more miracles as part of the process leading to the building of the third temple, he adds.

Perhaps an "earthquake" could transform the city of Hebron, which now has an overwhelming Arab majority over settlers, he even mused.

In terms of Jewish rights, Damri says the situation is analogous to his taking a trip to Australia for two weeks and coming back to find a neighbour had taken over his house. Of course the intruder should vacate, and the same is true whether he left for two months, two years, 20 years, 200 years or 2000 years. Damri says his title deed is the Bible's recounting the purchase by Abraham of the Cave of the Patriarchs in nearby Hebron.

"When I live between Hebron and Beersheba and I read the weekly bible portion about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I understand that they lived here. I look out the window and see Hebron on one side and Beersheba on the other. I understand that really I am walking in their footsteps. When it is quiet, I hear the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

All we are doing in Mountt Hebron is kindling light by adding and returning Jews to their homes.

In Damri's expressions, he and the settlers represent "light" and the Palestinians "darkness".

"All we are doing in Mount Hebron is kindling light by adding and returning Jews to their homes," Damri says.

Referring to his Palestinian neighbours, Damri adds: "To say that tomorrow I'll put them all on trains and transfer them, God forbid. Our job is to kindle light, put settlements here, live here and fulfil prophecies. Then God will do his part."

Cohen-Lifshitz, the specialist on West Bank planning issues, calls Damri "extremist and dangerous.

"What he really wants to do is to 'clean' the West Bank of all Palestinians. He wants to carry out war crimes."


VIDEO MSNBC Velshi: A Palestinian shepherd peacefully resisted the Israeli occupation. And now he’s dead (MSNBC)

Leading US Jewish groups urge Israel to act against 'extremist' settler violence in West Bank (Haaretz)

Gantz: Rock throwers are terrorists, whoever they are (Jerusalem Post)

Settlers throw rocks at Palestinian vehicles near Homesh outpost, IDF says (Times of Israel)

Photo: But Yochai Damri in his office (supplied)

About the author

Ben Lynfield

Ben Lynfield covered Israeli and Palestinian politics for The Independent and served as Middle Eastern affairs correspondent at the Jerusalem Post. He writes for publications in the region and has contributed to the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and the New Statesman.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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