Shabtay Bendet was on hand at the Civil Administration’s Beit El headquarters in October when the Defense Ministry body authorized the West Bank settlement of Rehelim’s first-ever building plan.
Had it happened two decades earlier, it would likely have been a momentous occasion for the 45-year-old, who, as one of the founders of Rehelim — the West Bank’s first illegal outpost — facilitated the covert transport of trailers to the hilltop community south of Nablus in the dead of night.
Then, as now, Bendet was starkly at odds with government policy on Israeli construction over the Green Line. But these days, instead of trying to outfox Israel Defense Forces soldiers on the hilltops of the West Bank, he is fighting the Civil Administration bureaucrats who have ruled in favor of further normalizing Rehelim, along with other wildcat communities the government has sought to legalize.
Bendet no longer sports the black hat characteristic of the Hasidic Chabad (Lubavitch) movement, of which he had once been a member. Instead, the bareheaded father-of-six wears a new hat: that of director of Peace Now’s settlement watch team.
He attended the Civil Administration meeting — the outcome, in part, of his own tenacious past activism — to learn of the newest obstacle facing his organization in its quest to bring an end to Israeli control over the West Bank.
Seated in a row of chairs set up for journalists covering the decision, Bendet crossed his arms and shifted in his seat as the Civil Administration committee announced its ruling in favor of Rehelim’s settlers.
“You can’t ignore the humor of it all,” Bendet said, smirking slightly as he reflected on the moment two months later. “I know what I did in the past, and I knew it would catch up with me at some point.”
Also on hand to hear the decision were other Rehelim founders, old friends of Bendet’s with whom he had spent many cold and rainy nights in teetering shacks on the windswept hilltop. “They offered to go out for a l’chaim [festive toast] afterward to celebrate the fruits of our labor,” he recalled. “I smiled and declined as respectfully as I could.”
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Bendet said he was aware of the many ironies that come with his transformation from hard-core settler to left-wing activist, but he insisted he’s not focused on the past. “I have no regrets. What I did I did, and you can’t turn back the wheel.”
These days, Bendet heads a small team at Peace Now that tracks all construction carried out in the settlements, as well as any related Knesset legislation. It is an effort he says is geared toward preserving the option of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“What I’m doing now is not me looking for retribution. I didn’t take this job to atone for ‘sins of the past,'” he said. “On the other hand, I can’t say that if I managed to do something that helps bring about change, I wouldn’t be happy about it.”
Coping with that ‘lack of quiet’
While Bendet asked that questions regarding his family be off-limits, he opened up about his childhood “in a pretty typical religious home” in Tel Aviv. The youngest of three children, he was active in the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement and studied in Jerusalem’s Machon Meir yeshiva after graduating high school.
“It was a place for those looking to become even more religious,” he said. “I was already doing a great deal of soul-searching at the time.”
After a year at Machon Meir, Bendet enlisted in the army and served as a commander in the Givati infantry brigade. Following his discharge, he moved to the northern town of Safed to continue his Torah studies at a yeshiva.
There, Bendet was married off and had his first child.
As he became more religious, he and his wife looked for opportunities to move to the West Bank.
Two days after reaching out to Amana — a group that promotes the development of new communities over the Green Line — he received a call from one of his former IDF comrades who worked for the organization, inviting him to come to a hilltop south of Nablus.
“I had heard about the place before and had even talked about it with that same soldier who called me some three years later,” Bendet said.
The story of Rehelim began in October 1991, when a bus of right-wing activists heading from the Shiloh settlement to a Tel Aviv protest against the upcoming Madrid Peace Conference came under fire from a group of Palestinian terrorists.
The attack killed Rachel Drouk, a mother of seven from Shiloh. Immediately after burying their friend, a group of 25 women made their way to the hilltop where she was murdered, marking it as the next spot for Jewish settlement.
While the army initially resisted the requests of the women to remain on the hilltop, Israeli authorities eventually acquiesced and allowed them to stay for the duration of the seven-day shiva mourning period.
When the week ended, a deal was struck with the army allowing the women to erect a number of makeshift tents, which would be guarded by a new military outpost. There were no permanent buildings, but settlers were allowed to visit freely and periodically stay the night.
Rehelim, which is the Hebrew plural of “Rachel,” is also named for Rachel Weiss, who was burned to death along with her three children in a Molotov cocktail attack on a bus outside Jericho in 1988, and Rachel the biblical matriarch.
“Eventually, Amana decided that it wanted to have a permanent presence there,” Bendet said. It was then — in the fall of 1996 — that the radicalizing yeshiva student moved from Safed to the hilltop along with his wife and eight-month-old daughter.
“I felt like I was doing something meaningful. I didn’t want to move to a community that already existed,” he said. “Our central trigger was to create something that could not be undone.”
Upon arrival in Rehelim, Bendet found agricultural work in the hilltop community of Shvut Rachel, “where the goal was to expand settlement to as much land as possible under the guise of agriculture.”
He went on to become the security coordinator for the nearby Yitzhar settlement. There, he said, he was “exposed to the ideology of the community, which was based on the idea that if the state doesn’t act the way it’s supposed to [on settlement matters], we’d challenge them to do so and were prepared to break the law if necessary.”
“We saw Palestinians as an enemy,” he recalled. “The army was there to protect us, and we had a good relationship with them overall, but we also factored how that relationship could be manipulated to our benefit.”
In a pattern that would recur throughout the West Bank in the years since, Bendet said the government grudgingly accepted Rehelim’s existence after the fact, but only to an extent. The settlers were forced to play a cat-and-mouse game with the Israeli soldiers who protected them, trying to catch the 18- to 21-year-olds off guard long enough to install additional caravans on the hilltop.
“Only once did the army come in and destroy an expansion after we had completed it,” he said.
During his early years at Rehelim, Bendet also studied at the radical Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva, which at the time was located at the Joseph’s Tomb shrine site in the heart of the Palestinian city of Nablus.
There, he grew very close to the yeshiva’s president, the far-right Hasidic rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh. Bendet became “a Chabadnik from head to toe,” he said, going on to teach at various Chabad preschools in the area for a number of years.
But Bendet’s “soul-searching” continued, he said, and a “lack of quiet” drove further personal transformations as he searched for his “proper place.”
“I had thought that if I were to become more and more hardcore, I would find happiness and that the disquiet would cease,” he said. “But after years of that not happening, I began wondering if this [ultra-Orthodox lifestyle] isn’t the truth and that maybe it’s wrong to take an extreme view on everything, as if it’s all black and white.”
Gradually, he began to prioritize his own conscience over religious doctrine. And with the questioning of his identity came an examination of his political beliefs as well. “Most right-wingers who leave the faith remain in their political camp afterward, but for me, it was only natural to test one against the other,” he said.
Bendet said a formative experience in his decision to veer leftward was the 2005 evacuation of the settlement of Homesh.
After having left the education field due to his disillusionment with the Chabad ideology, Bendet took a job as chief administrator at the northern West Bank community’s yeshiva in 2004.
He was present a year later when soldiers arrived at Homesh to clear the hilltop of its 70 families in the framework of the Gaza disengagement.
“People say that the feeling during these evacuations is like an organ being ripped out of your body and that it’s even worse because it’s your own brothers doing it,” Bendet explained. “I felt this at Homesh as well, but there was also a part of me that thought, ‘Maybe there’s more to this. Maybe we’re exaggerating by thinking that everything related to these communities is the most important thing in the world.'”
But he kept his apprehensions to himself until he eventually decided that he was “no longer religious anymore.” Bendet remained in Rehelim with his family for another three years, but stopped covered his head or keeping Shabbat. “People probably thought, ‘Oh, that’s just Shabtay,’ but my journey really did not have that many steps. I was religious, then I became Haredi, and now I am secular. That’s it.”
In 2009, after 12 years in Rehelim, Bendet, his wife and their entourage of children, which by then had swelled to six, moved to the central city of Modiin. Acting on his desire to better understand the conflict by “meeting the other side,” the ex-settler became a West Bank correspondent for the Galey Israel radio station and later for the Walla news site.
“I used the opportunity to meet with Palestinians as much as I could,” he said. “I would cover every protest, embedding myself within their population in an attempt to truly understand where they are coming from.”
The new reporter saw his views slowly move further to the left with each year on the job. Bendet explained that as a settler, he understood generally how “impenetrable” building regulations were in the West Bank, but “as a journalist I began learning how discriminatory they are against Palestinians.”
Regardless, Bendet said he was “fanatic” about keeping his political views out of his work. “I wanted to be able to observe from above, rather than be part of the story,” he said.
But that desire was put to the test a year ago at another West Bank evacuation: in Amona. Bendet was at the outpost as a member of the press, but while he was not an active player in the demolition, his eldest son was.
“We talked about it before, and I knew he would be there. After all, I had educated him for this sort of thing,” he said.
From a young age, Bendet had taught his children about the importance of the settlement movement, and he said it was “only natural” for his son to be among the hundreds of youths who descended on Amona last February to protest the evacuation.
“I can’t suddenly get up and say everything I taught him was nonsense,” he said. “I try to give him a different point of view when possible, but I understood why he was there.”
While the then-reporter wanted to give his son some space during the evacuation, he didn’t expect him to enter the frame of his broadcast. But as Bendet started televising from inside one of the homes being prepped for demolition, he noticed his child on the floor with a handful of other youth refusing to be evacuated.
“It was definitely difficult to see, but I composed myself and asked one of the soldiers there if I could try to convince him to leave of his own volition,” Bendet recalled. “I told him that he fought, protested and did his part, but that it was time to go.”
When the teenager refused, he was hoisted up by four soldiers and lugged out of the home, crying as Bendet walking behind him, carrying his son’s bag.
“It wasn’t easy, but it is what it is,” he said, looking away and nodding.
The last stop?
Seven months later, Bendet clocked in his last day as a reporter after some seven years in the field, joining Peace Now in September.
“After years of learning as a journalist, I decided I wanted to go back to activism and devote myself more directly to the cause I believe in,” he said.
While Bendet admitted to being “marked” as a leftist by some of his friends and family due to his ideological transformation and new role in Peace Now, he said he revels in his newfound freedom to not “hold back” his views.
“It’s uncomfortable to a certain degree, but I hope that those who know me realize that I’ve chosen this path not from a bad place but because this is what I believe will make this country a better place,” he said.
“But let’s put everything on the table. They want to entrench their presence in the West Bank, and I want to do the opposite.”
Asked if a further ideological shift was in the offing for him, he smiled.
“I no longer have that disquiet irking me like before,” he said.