Louis Theroux: My time among the 'ultra-Zionists'

Louis Theroux in Jerusalem's Old City, overlooking the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount

Louis Theroux spends time with ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers and discovers a small, but very committed subculture.

On a hilltop in the Northern West Bank, not far from the large Palestinian city of Nablus, I met 17-year-old Yair Lieberman.

A part-time labourer and student, Yair's home was a makeshift canvas-covered structure, only slightly more solid than a tent, which he shared with three other young men. The bed was a tangled mess of sheets, in the style of a conventional teenager's, and hung around the dwelling were posters - though not of pop groups, but of favourite rabbis. Outside, in the neighbouring lots, was a scattering of fifteen or so caravans and trailers - the outpost of Havat Gilad.

Map of Israel showing location of Havat Gilad

Like the settlements up and down the West Bank, Havat Gilad is illegal under international law. It lies miles inside the territory won by Israel in the 1967 war and the vast majority of the surrounding population is Palestinian. But Havat Gilad is also illegal under Israeli law. Electricity comes from a generator. Water is trucked in.

Yair moved up to Havat Gilad a couple of years ago. On a tour around the hilltop, I asked him why he'd decided to make his life in this ramshackle encampment, at the end of a dirt road, on an inhospitable hilltop among Arab olive groves.

"If we're not here there's a [Palestinian] city and we don't want another [Palestinian] city," he said.

What, I wondered, would be so bad about another Palestinian city?

Louis Theroux meets the Ultra Zionists

"Because it's my land! It's the land of Israel. It's not the land of Palestinians."

Yair's beliefs are shared by a hardcore religious nationalist fringe of Jewish Israelis who have chosen to make their home up and down the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. They say that those areas belong by right to the Jewish people - a title claim based mainly on the bible.

The fact that there are nearly ten times as many Arabs as there are Jews in the West Bank, with their own dreams of a national homeland, they regard as a side-issue.

I was making a documentary about these ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers, called The Ultra-Zionists. For several weeks I'd been spending time in some of the most hardcore and uncompromising sections of the Israeli nationalist community - the Jewish enclave in Hebron, in the hilltops in the north of the West Bank, and in the crowded Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem - choosing to come at a time when peace talks were ongoing and the extreme settlers were therefore more embattled.

Find out more

  • Louis Theroux's report, The Ultra Zionists, is on BBC Two at 2100 GMT on Thursday 3 February

For many years I'd been fascinated by extreme nationalists - and I'd hoped the issue of the West Bank and its settlement by extreme religious Jews would be a chance to understand this mindset at first hand.

The day before meeting Yair I'd travelled up to the nearby outpost of Givat Ronen, known to be, if anything, an even more radical and nationalistic community. Early that morning I'd learned that the Israeli army had taken the fairly unusual step of actually enforcing the law against the extreme settlers and dismantling a small house and a goat shed.

Given that the whole community was illegal under Israeli law, the army's action was somewhat tokenistic. But even this was enough to set off local Jewish settler youths who reacted by stoning the shops in a nearby Palestinian village and setting fire to the hillside.

It might be easy to write off these "ultra-Zionists" as people on the fringe of a fringe in terms of their outlook and beliefs. And it is true that many, if not most, Israelis say they would be happy to pull out of most of the occupied territories if they were confident it would lead to peace.

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The anger and despair of the Palestinians at the settling of foreigners in their midst is palpable”

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But what makes the extreme settlers more troubling is that they also enjoy a degree of support from the Israeli state. Surprising as it may seem, many illegal outposts like Yair's are protected by the Israeli army. And in East Jerusalem and Hebron the Jewish presence is fully legal under Israeli law and underwritten and guaranteed by a vast security force.

The anger and despair of the Palestinians at the settling of foreigners in their midst is palpable. Many say they would be happy to have Jewish neighbours but not while they don't enjoy the same rights or have the same sovereignty. Towards the end of my stay, one of the settler security guards in East Jerusalem shot and killed a Palestinian man. Rioting was widespread and it seemed clear to me the country was close to a third intifada.

Not long after that I left Jerusalem, but not before I visited Yair again. Once again I found him friendly, likeable, and yet profoundly lacking in perspective of how his national aspirations were trampling on the rights of millions of Palestinians.

With the very vague possibility of peace on the horizon, I asked if he wasn't worried about being told to leave.

"If they want they can take me by power and I'm going to come back illegally," he said. "This is our land. You can come and kill us and do whatever you want. We're going to die for this country."

Below is a selection of your comments.

This just fills me with a feeling of utter despair and hopelessness; I doubt that I'll ever see peace in the Israel-Palestinian region in my lifetime.

MB, Twickenham

Interestingly, there is also a section of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel who don't want the modern Israeli state, based on the religious belief that it is their God who will create their nation and not man. Those Jews view modern Israel as a travesty. The "ultra-Zionists", on the other hand, clearly seem to mix politics and faith and come up with a very distorted outcome. The situation in Israel with the Palestinian struggle is proof that the separation of the church (or mosque or synagogue) and state is required should we wish to live in peace with our neighbours.

Ioannis Pelegrinis, Athens, Greece

I am a Christian and agree that the whole of Israel was God given to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and still belongs to Israel. The Bible also states that God is bringing the Jewish people back to their land and they will possess it - never again to be dispossessed.

Alan, England

I lived in Israel in the early 90s for three years and I found, as mentioned in this article, that most Israelis and Palestinians would be happy to live alongside eachother. It is the ruling powers and the few extremists on both sides that cause much of the conflict. While I was living there, there was a big influx of Russian and East European Jews who were promptly housed in disputed areas in newly-built houses. Of course this will cause contention. Until the issue of how to divide Jerusalem is settled, I cannot see how a peaceful agreement can be reached.

Helen Nelson, London

There are ultra-mad among all peoples. Some want make UK a muslim state, others murder women "legally" by stoning them, look at the Taliban!

Anon, UK

I find it difficult to understand that a nation formed due to the oppression of its people are not more sympathetic to the plight of the people that have been moved to form their nation.

Stephen, Bristol

I would like Mr Theroux to go and spend eight weeks os so (although it may end up being a lifetime), with the extremists in Lebanon or Gaza - Hizbollah or Hamas. How do their dreams of "sweeping the zionists in to the sea" trample on the legitimate rights of millions of Jews?

Deciderus Erasmus, UK

The sad truth is that the Palestinians are the pawns of the Islamic ideology that will never permit a Jewish state to exist in peace. It was that way in 1948 and it has remained the same for the last 40 years or more. With Saudi money promoting their Wahhabi extremism on the one side and the Iranian delegates, Hamas and Hezbollah promoting their violence on the other side, what chance do the poor old Palestinians have?

Stephen, London, UK

I'm really looking forward to seeing Louis' programme tonight. I profoundly disagree with the settlers' position and beliefs but would like better to understand how such fundamentalist views take root.

Sarah Williams, London, England

Will be very interested to see the programme but by reading this I am worried that it will not give any sort of balance by showing that most everyday Israelis do not have this sort of mindset and most would be willing to vacate nearly all settlements as long as the West Bank wasn't turned into another convenient place to launch rockets from like Gaza has been,

Dan W, London, UK

There will always be extremists on either side of any dispute. What is so objectionable in Israel, as Louis points out, is that the extremists in Israel are backed by the Israeli state and army. They protect the illegal settlements and the settlers, thereby giving them legitimacy. When is the international community going to do something about this?

John Mather, London, UK

I'm not sure how a goat shed on a hilltop is more a threat to the peace process than a Qassam missile.

Serge, New York, US

It is a shame that reliance is placed on one part of the Bible to deduce property rights but other parts are ignored, such as "Love thy neighbour."

K Shah, Harrow

This article, I feel, highlights the commonalities between those of Jewish and Muslim faiths. It is so sad to see the views of the moderate majority being hijacked and trampled on, not only by the extremists who live amongst them, but by the anti-semitic and islamophobic views of the ignorant individuals who pollute our planet with their toxic hatred.

Sairah, London

Louis Theroux meets the Ultra Zionists

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