The former West Bank settler who says he wants to make Israel a better place

Shabtay Bendet tells the JC why he now campaigns against West Bank settlements


There is a photo of Shabtay Bendet in a former life, taken some time around the turn of the century, smiling proudly in front of his West Bank home — an illegal shack, made of thin plaster and held up with two-by-fours.

Things are different now. Gone are his long beard, black hat and visible tzitzit hanging from under his shirt. Now he wears jeans and suede boots, and has the air of someone who owns a motorbike.

Speaking to the JC in London before this week’s outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza, Shabtay explained that since the days of that photo, Israel has undergone its own transformation.

Back then, he and fellow settlers of Rehelim shook their fists at the Israeli government, which viewed outposts like his as illegal and stationed Israeli troops nearby to frustrate its growth.

As an early pioneer of religiously-motivated settlement beyond the Green Line, Shabtay watched Rehelim grow from a few tents in the sand to a town of more than 100 families in 2013 — at which point the authorities began to officially authorise further construction.

Today, he still rages against the Israeli government. But having let go of religion, his fight now is to halt and dismantle the very settlements he helped to build.

“I was ultra Orthodox for many years. I learned in a yeshiva in Nablus,” he said. “We tried to find a lot of tricks to get around the army to build another house, and another house.”

They would circumvent the ban on building materials by, for instance, bringing in iron to build a succah.

“But we wouldn’t tell them we planned to use the same materials to build houses after Succot, and fit it with all the things you need for a good house — plumbing.

“It just didn’t matter what the Palestinians want, need, think.”

But Shabtay said he began to develop questions about what he was doing.

“It was not a crisis, but I started to question right and wrong. Was it correct for me to live like that? For many years I just put questions to the side.

“I had to decide where I belonged. After five years, I decided I did not believe any more.”

He initially turned to journalism to stop what he suddenly saw as an immoral expansion across Palestinian land, working as the West Bank correspondent for the Israeli news site Walla!. But soon became dissatisfied with a life spent at the back of courtrooms and planning meetings.

Instead, he is now the director of the settlement watch team at pressure group Peace Now, collecting data and keeping tabs on illegal communities popping up across the West Bank.

He said: “Something inside me is an activist. When I was a settler I was an activist too. I didn’t want to look at it from the sidelines. I wanted to make a change — to make Israel a better place.

“I am not happy about what I did in the past. But I did it. It’s a fact, and trying to make up for the things I did in the past is not my motivation. I don’t believe in blaming yourself. I can’t hide it and I don’t want to.”

Shabtay, 46, came to the UK for the first time this month to spread his message of co-existence in university campuses. His activism comes with a price — in the form of abuse, threats and intimidation. Usually it takes place online, but pains him nonetheless.

He said: “I know the truth. I know that I love my country. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have stayed. It’s my home. This is where I want to live for the rest of my days.

“It hurts, but it is the price I am willing to pay in order to promote, advance and work towards an idea that I think is for the benefit of my country.”

Recently, the residents of a demolished outpost in Gush Etzion began a tour of Israeli schools to convince children that the courts and groups like Peace Now were traitors to the cause of Zionism.

Shabtay’s daughter was in one classroom where they screened a film in which he could clearly be seen.

“There’s no doubt it’s extra painful when it’s my kids who have to hear them speak that way about their father — to have her classmates looking at her strangely.

“But I am very lucky to have such a strong and smart daughter.”

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