Israel’s extremist settler groups have earned a reputation for their aggression toward Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
While they have a history of conflict with their own government because of their radical opposition to a Palestinian state, their influence in national politics has notably risen in recent years.
Settler groups are branded as “non-state actors” and criticised within Israel for the illegal annexation of Palestinian land. But now that the most right-wing government in Israel's history is running the country and is fighting a relentless war on Gaza, a more complex reality has emerged.
Settlers are deeply entrenched in religious Zionism, which is centred on establishing an ethno-state exclusively for Jews.
These political ambitions set them apart from the Haredi brand of orthodox Judaism with which they are associated. These settlers have expansionist aims to take over the West Bank and Gaza completely.
Intricate links to the state
While Tel Aviv officially stands back from such hardline demands, the extent of the groups’ actual ties to key parts of Israel’s political system reveals a more intricate set of links.
Research into the status of ultra-Orthodox settler factions within the larger framework of the religious Zionist movement has found that they significantly influence Israeli politics. And they have a longer track record of violence, as well as extremism than is often realised.
Dr. Eran Zedekiah, an expert in religious nationalism at The Regional Thinking Forum, says that settler expansionism is a core component of Zionist ideology.
Anytime an Israeli government indicates a willingness to concede illegally occupied Palestinian territory, these groups violently revolt and form militias that directly challenge state policies.
But this is hardly a new phenomenon.
In the 1980s, Jewish extremist groups carried out covert operations in the West Bank, including violent attacks on citizens and even assassinations of Palestinian mayors.
These plots were driven by fears of territorial concessions to Palestinians after Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin himself was assassinated by an Israeli extremist, demonstrating the depths of the resistance to any kind of concession and the lengths they were prepared to go to in opposition to the Oslo Accords and any moves toward long-term peace via a two-state solution.
This violence continues today, as seen by the escalation of violence by radical religious Zionist movements, such as the Hilltop Youth, which remain deeply embedded in West Bank settlements.
While these groups sometimes clash with Israeli army forces, their broader settler expansionist activity is carried out with the tacit support of the military. They are also funded by political entities, including some that receive state subsidies.