BEIT EL, West Bank — In a modern building of beige and black stone, hundreds of Jewish students pore over religious texts and learn of their right to settle the land surrounding this hillside settlement, as promised by God to their forefathers.
The new building for the religious seminary, or yeshiva, opened just a month ago, despite controversy over any new construction here. A sign reading “Danger: Construction” still hangs on the fence outside.
Located deep inside the occupied West Bank, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, the settlement is considered illegal by most of the international community. But it has some influential backers, the most famous of whom now sits in the White House.
Several of President Trump’s close associates have strong links to the right-wing Zionist community, home to 1,300 families. Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, his former bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, is president of the American Friends of Bet El Institutions, which raises about $2 million a year. Its website says the group has helped bring about an influx in young couples and is working to create “facts on the ground” to prevent international attempts to uproot the community.
The family of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has donated tens of thousands. Trump himself made a $10,000 donation in 2003, his foundation’s tax filings show.
Palestinians say such communities present a major barrier to peace and the creation of a contiguous future Palestinian state. It is a view that much of the world shares.
But Trump’s ties to the settler movement could upend decades of U.S. policy on dealing with the conflict here, allowing Israel more freedom to build without censure from Washington, which previously considered West Bank settlements “illegitimate.”
The first signs of a shift emerged last week, as Israel made a bold announcement of 2,500 new housing units in West Bank settlements, including some in Beit El. So far, the Trump administration has avoided condemning the move.
“We are now more hopeful,” Yael Ben-Yashar, who has lived in Beit El for 20 years and acts as the settlement’s spokeswoman and runs tours, said last week. “We think it may be a new era.”
Beit El was established in 1977 by members of a right-wing messianic activist movement that thinks Jews should return to repopulate Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank. Despite restrictions on building, Beit El has burgeoned from a hardscrabble hilltop outpost of a few caravans to a small town dotted with palm trees and a clinic and schools.
The area of Beit El, meaning “House of God,” held particular resonance for the settlers. It was believed to be the site where, according to the Bible, Jacob had his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven, when God promised him that his descendants would return to the surrounding land.
“Today, in Beit El, we are living that dream,” Ben-Yashar said from an observation point on top of a water tank, from which the view stretches from Tel Aviv to the west to Mount Scopus to the south and the Golan Heights to the north. In the center of the viewing platform, a mosaic depicts a map of greater Israel.
“You can see why God promised it here,” she said. “You can see it all from here.”
Nearby, down a dirt track, is the smooth flat rock where believers say Jacob slept. The site and the settlement attract about 5,000 visitors a year, said Ben-Yashar.
Some also visit its small winery, run by Hillel Manne and his wife, Nina, who met Friedman when he came to pick grapes several years ago.
“I think it was just after 2008, because I remember we joked he’d made a lot of money,” Manne said with a chuckle, referring to Friedman’s work as a bankruptcy lawyer during the financial crash. His wife described Friedman as a “family person.”
“He came with all the family. His wife is wonderful, too,” she said.
Friedman, the son of an Orthodox rabbi, was picked as ambassador by Trump despite having no diplomatic experience. He has publicly said that the “two-state narrative” needs to end, is a staunch supporter of settlements, and has said he expects to work from Jerusalem. Moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which has been opposed by Palestinians, would be seen as tacit recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the contested city.
But Hillel Manne said he fears that Friedman, and a more sympathetic ear in the White House, may not be able to change much.
“It’s good to see people excited,” he said of Friedman’s appointment. “But if you want change, you’ll need big change at the State Department. The State Department staff, they’ve managed the U.S. to bet on a lot of losers.”
“This land was promised to me as a Jew,” Nina Manne said. “It is ridiculous that we need to live in this situation. That we have to justify ourselves to be here.”
But Beit El was largely established on private Palestinian land that had been designated by the Israeli state for military purposes, according to a report published by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Approval for 20 new units came last week when the expansion in the West Bank was announced, according to Beit El’s mayor, Shay Alon.
The plans are “disastrous,” Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said, condemning Israeli “land theft.”
“It is evident that Israel is exploiting the inauguration of the new American administration to escalate its violations and the prevention of any existence of a Palestinian state,” she said in a statement, urging the international community to take action.
For Alon, however, the expansion plan didn’t go far enough. He said he felt “ambivalent” about the news, given that 300 new units in Beit El had been promised when several apartment blocks were razed by the government five years ago.
Building permits were restricted for years when Barack Obama was U.S. president, and Alon hopes that Friedman “is the sort of person who can bring about a change.”
Like other Orthodox residents here, he believes their presence is preordained.
Yishai Babad was in the ninth family to arrive, and he set up a factory that makes tefillin — small leather phylacteries containing verses from the Torah.
He said Obama “loved the Arabs and not the Jews,” but that the incoming administration would make no difference.
“We don’t believe that the policy towards Beit El is going to change anything, because it’s all written in the scriptures,” he said. “We’ve always had difficulties, but all of Israel was built despite the difficulties.”