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Israel's religious right has a clear plan for Gaza: 'We are occupying, deporting and settling'

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Israel's religious right has a clear plan for Gaza: 'We are occupying, deporting and settling'

Carrying planks of plywood, a group of Israeli settlers pushed past soldiers guarding the barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip and quickly got to work. Within minutes, the young men had erected two small buildings — outposts, they said, of a future Jewish settlement in the war-torn Palestinian enclave.

Their movement had hungered for this moment for years, but now, after Oct. 7, they felt it was just a matter of time before Jews would be living in Gaza again. “It is ours,” said David Remer, 18. “[God] said it is ours.”

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Soldiers standing by a tall security fence as civilians look for a way to pass

3 Two soldiers picking up a struggling woman near a tall security wall as other troops stand by

1. Protesters march to a border checkpoint in Kerem Shalom, Israel, hoping to block aid shipments into war-torn Gaza. 2. Israeli troops stand by at Erez Crossing as activists try to enter the military buffer zone into Gaza. 3. Israeli troops remove a protester from a sit-in intended to block shipments of aid into the Gaza Strip.

Religious Zionists, who believe the Jewish people have divine authority to rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, make up only around 14% of Israel’s population. But in recent years they have greatly expanded their influence in the military, the government and society at large, and their often extremist ideology is helping shape Israel’s war against Hamas.

Although they are not politically homogeneous, most religious Zionists embrace far-right views. They loudly oppose a cease-fire deal to bring home Israeli hostages, and have repeatedly blocked humanitarian assistance from entering Gaza by standing in front of aid trucks.

They see the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on Israel as proof of their longtime assertion that peace cannot be made with the Palestinians, and view Gaza as a territory that they have a religious obligation to conquer. Increasingly, they have called for the expulsion of the 2.3 million Palestinians living there.

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Over a dozen people building small structures in front of a tall wall in the haze

Jewish settler activists hastily erect outposts inside the Israeli military’s buffer zone for the Gaza Strip at the Erez crossing.

First, they dream of reestablishing Gush Katif, a bloc of Jewish settlements that existed in Gaza until Israel withdrew from the enclave in 2005.

It’s a goal embraced by some of the top leaders in Israel’s far-right government, many of whom appeared at a recent Jerusalem rally pushing for Gaza’s resettlement. While videos played showing Israel’s brutal military assault on the enclave and organizers shared brochures promising new houses with views of the Mediterranean Sea, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir sang religious songs alongside participants and told them: “Now is the time to return home.”

On the battlefield, some religious soldiers have recorded themselves dancing with Torah scrolls and waving the orange flags of Gush Katif. Other combatants travel with mezuzahs, small boxes containing biblical Scriptures meant to be hung outside Jewish residences, to affix to Palestinian homes.

Reuven Gal, former chief psychologist for the military and a researcher at the Israel Institute of Technology, says that for many soldiers, the Gaza conflict that has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians is “not just a military operation.”

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“For them,” he said, “it’s a holy war.”

A hand pointing to a passage in English in the Torah, and a sprawling community in the valley below
Two men standing, looking at the scrolls of the Torah inside a synagogue

Top, Settler Avraham Sheinman, overlooking Nablus in the West Bank from Mt. Gerizim, points out passages in his Torah that he says show Jews have a religious obligation to conquer Palestinian territories. Bottom, Yishai Sheinman, left, and father Avraham Sheinman uncover the Torah in a synagogue in Yitzhar, West Bank. Yishai, 27, belongs to a violent extremist group devoted to expanding Israeli control of the region.

Yair Margolis, an army reservist who was called up from his yeshiva studies last year to fight in Gaza, said during a recent break from battle that the war had a clear spiritual dimension.

“Going back to that land is returning home,” he said. “This is where we are from, and this is what we are fighting for.”

It’s a vision starkly at odds with Israel’s mainstream, even as the country’s political center has shifted discernibly to the right in recent years. A January poll by Israel’s Channel 12 broadcaster found that 51% of Israelis oppose building Jewish settlements in Gaza, compared with 38% who support doing so.

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1 Itamar Ben-Gvir gives a thumbs-up and hugs a man as others stand by on a stage decorated with blue panels

2 People dancing on the crowded floor of a convention

1. Israel’s national security chief and leader of the far-right Jewish Power Party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, center, called at a recent convention for rebuilding Jewish settlements in Gaza and expanding those in the occupied West Bank. 2. The crowd celebrates at the Jerusalem convention, organized by far-right activists seeking expansion onto more Palestinian land.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-wing populist, has called settling Gaza “unrealistic.” But in 2022, as his ongoing corruption trials left him isolated, Netanyahu made a deal with several religious Zionist parties to form a coalition government, and his political future is now closely tied to theirs.

Beyond a pledge to maintain indefinite military control over Gaza and eventually turn over administrative duties to Palestinians, Netanyahu’s postwar strategy remains murky, leaving a vacuum, political analysts say, that the religious right is eager to fill.

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About a dozen soldiers standing in the haze as others operate tanks near a security wall

Israeli forces arrive at the Erez border crossing next to the northern Gaza Strip.

In a recent video from Gaza circulated on social media, an Israeli soldier dressed in camouflage stands smiling with a machine gun in front of a bombed-out building. He directly addresses Netanyahu, who is widely known by his nickname “Bibi.”

“We are occupying, deporting and settling,” the soldier says. “Do you hear that, Bibi?”

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During the war in 1967, Israel captured a wide swath of Palestinian land that included the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

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Almost immediately, Jewish settlers began establishing communities in each of them, displacing Palestinians who lived there.

Three soldiers, one propped up on a roof brace, outside a small building, gazing down on communities in the valley below

Tuvia Levy, far right, and Marom Harel, center, look over Palestinian towns from a security outpost in Yitzhar, West Bank. Both men live in West Bank settlements and were called up for reserve duty after Oct. 7.

While the settler movement isn’t composed just of religious people, and over the years it has received backing from both right- and left-wing Israeli governments, it is ideologically driven by practitioners of Orthodox Judaism who believe God gave what they call the Land of Israel exclusively to the Jews.

Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, some of whom oppose the Zionist project and decline to serve in the military, religious Zionists embrace the teachings of rabbis who say believers have a spiritual imperative to expand Israel’s borders.

By 2005, around 8,000 mostly religious Zionists were living in Gaza, often in neighborhoods that resembled Southern California subdivisions, with their orderly rows of red-tile-roofed homes. The settlements were heavily guarded by the military, and residents frequently clashed with their Palestinian neighbors.

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Amid growing concerns about high casualties among the troops tasked with protecting the settlements, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered a complete Israeli withdrawal from the enclave. Sharon, who was a supporter of settlers in the West Bank, now instructed soldiers to forcibly remove them from Gaza.

The “disengagement” from Gaza, with its scenes of screaming settlers being pulled from their homes and synagogues, was transformative for religious Zionists. Many vowed to gain more influence in the traditionally secular institutions they felt had betrayed them.

“For them it was a traumatic event,” said Yagil Levy, a professor of political sociology at the Open University of Israel. “They want to erase this trauma by any means.”

People sitting in what's left of a room as others survey the rubble of bombed-out buildings

Palestinians take in the rubble left by an Israeli airstrike on residential buildings and a mosque in Rafah, Gaza Strip.

(Fatima Shbair / Associated Press)

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That meant building a political movement that has sought “to push the government as far right as it can go” and “completely demolish any talk of a Palestinian state,” said political scientist Dahlia Scheindlin. Over time, she said, ideas that once seemed extreme — like expanding settlements in the West Bank — became normalized.

Helping their cause were the country’s changing demographics: Religious Zionists, like the ultra-Orthodox, were having children at a much higher rate than their secular peers.

At the same time, they were making new inroads in the army.

The military academy that has become the West Point for the religious right is built atop a wind-swept hill in the West Bank settlement of Eli. Here, young men wearing yarmulkes spend their days studying both the Torah and military strategy.

For many years, religious Zionist families were hesitant for their sons to fulfill Israel’s mandatory three-year army service, worried that exposure to secular peers would erode their faith. This school, Bnei David, promised to minimize that risk, offering teenage boys a chance to fortify their religious beliefs before entering the military. Its website boasts of starting a “quiet revolution in the Israel Defense Forces.”

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Young men in yarmulkes study at row after row of book-filled desks.
At Bnei David in the West Bank settlement of Eli, young religous Zionist men study both the Torah and military strategy; the academy’s website boasts of starting a “quiet revolution in the Israel Defense Forces.”

Students are taught that God “wants a people of Israel, and there is no state of Israel if there isn’t a strong army,” said Rabbi Eli Sadan, the school’s founder. They’re also taught by instructors who oppose the presence of women in the military and who have described gay people as “sick and perverted.”

Speaking from behind a large desk strewn with rabbinical texts, Sadan said he supports a scorched-earth military strategy in Gaza, “so Israel’s enemies will see the ruins and think: ‘I don’t want to mess with the Jews.’”

He is against the rebuilding of Palestinian society in Gaza, where at least half of all buildings have been damaged or destroyed during Israel’s fierce bombing campaign. “We must eliminate the possibility of Gazans returning,” he said, arguing that displaced civilians should be forced to live in tents for many years until they decide “to emigrate willingly.”

A closeup of a man with glasses and a white beard, holding his fists together near his face as he speaks
Young men in yarmulkes sitting at a table with books and papers, in front of a display with two rows of portraits

Top, Rabbi Eli Sadan, the founder of the Bnei David military academy, said he supports a scorched-earth strategy in Gaza. Bottom, Students attend a class in a room at Bnei David that honors alumni who died serving in the Israeli military. The school has lost 18 former students in the Gaza war.

Sadan said his school, which recently hosted events with both Netanyahu and Israel’s defense minister, has produced 3,000 soldiers, more than 50% of whom have risen to the rank of officer or higher. Since the conflict broke out, 18 alumni have died in Gaza.

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The rise of religious military academies like this one has dramatically changed the makeup of the army, said Levy, the sociologist. Religious Zionists made up about 3% of officer school graduates in 1990, Levy’s research shows; in 2018, they accounted for over a third.

Levy, who has written about what he calls the “theocratization of the Israeli military,” said the trend has caused conflicts, with some religious soldiers refusing to serve alongside women.

A young man wearing shorts does push-ups in the dark and rain on an athletic field.

A student does push-ups at the religious and military academy for religious Zionists.

A pressing question, he said, is whether religious soldiers would comply with orders to forcibly remove Jewish residents from a settlement — a scenario that could play out under the creation of a Palestinian state.

Sadan said he teaches his students to always heed commands from military superiors. But during the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, other rabbis called on soldiers to refuse orders, and some did.

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“What we see is growing resistance in the ranks,” Levy said. “They’re trying to challenge the formal codes of the military.”

::

Those hoping to establish Jewish settlements in Gaza say they will model their strategy on the West Bank, where today 500,000 settlers live among 3 million Palestinians.

Since Oct. 7, tensions here have been simmering as the line between settlers and soldiers has become increasingly blurred.

A man in a yarmulke holding a long gun and looking down from a hill to a city below

Reservist Yosef Shalom Sheinman, 30, was called up after Oct. 7 to help protect Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where he lives.

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After the Hamas attack in southern Israel killed around 1,200 people, hundreds of thousands of Israeli reservists were called up for duty. Many reservists in the West Bank were instructed to don uniforms and guard their own communities.

Among them were Yosef Shalom Sheinman, 30, who is from Har Bracha, a mountain settlement overlooking the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Sheinman’s parents helped found Har Bracha in 1987 amid protests from Jewish leftists and the Palestinians who once grazed sheep here. His younger brother, 27-year-old Yishai, belongs to a famously violent extremist group known as the Hilltop Youth, which is devoted to expanding Israeli control of the region. “These are kids who would eat Arabs for breakfast,” their father says proudly.

For decades, Israeli soldiers have been deployed throughout the West Bank to protect existing settlements, which most of the world considers illegal under international law. But the soldiers are also often instructed to stop the building of illegal settlement outposts. In the past, they sometimes clashed with Yishai Sheinman, tearing down new outposts he and his friends had erected.

A man and woman preparing food in a kitchen as one small child helps and another plays nearby

Like many religious Zionists, Yishai Sheinman, his wife, Rashid, and their children live in a settlement on Palestinian territory despite the disapproval of Washington and international law.

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Now many of the soldiers in the region are his friends — or, in the case of his older brother, his family.

The reservists are not curtailing settlement expansion, the older brother said. Instead, they’re focused on patrolling nearby Palestinian villages — and making sure they aren’t growing. His unit recently cut a new road through a stretch of hillside between a Palestinian hamlet and Har Bracha, in effect claiming the area for the settlement.

“This is our land,” he said. “And God is with us.”

On a recent afternoon, Sheinman stood with his father, Avraham, taking in views sweeping from the peaks of Jordan to the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. Avraham Sheinman clutched a well-worn Torah, which he consulted frequently to highlight passages that he says show Jews have a religious obligation to be here. “We have a commandment to conquer it,” he said.

He spoke of a war with Palestinians, but also of “an inner war” within Israel.

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“Who are we? What direction are we going?” he asked. “Are we going in the direction of our destiny as a chosen people in the Land of Israel — as a Jewish state according to Jewish law? Or are we a secular leftist copy of Europe or America?”

A soldier faces down one man as he approaches a tall security fence with troops on both sides

Israeli troops try to to stop one of many far-right activists from entering the Erez Crossing military buffer zone into Gaza.

Many on the other side of the political divide view that question with the same urgency.

In an interview with Sky News this month, writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari said the biggest threat to Israel is not Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran, but Jewish extremism: “There is really a battle for the soul of the Israeli nation between patriotism on the one side and ideals of Jewish supremacy on the other.”

It is too early to say exactly how the Hamas attack and the Gaza war will shape that debate. But early indications suggest they have awakened new support for the right.

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Protests near the Egyptian border to halt aid delivery into Gaza were first organized by religious Zionists, but now draw secular participants. And while much of the international community holds out hope that the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza will one day be recognized as a Palestinian country, faith among Israelis in a two-state solution has dimmed.

A Tel Aviv University poll found that support for peace negotiations among Israeli Jews had fallen from 48% just before the Hamas attacks to 25% a few weeks after.

Troops standing in the way of people seeking to pass, including a man with a small child on his shoulders

Supporters of Jewish settlements talk with Israeli troops in an effort to enter war-ravaged Gaza.

Leaders of the religious right, meanwhile, are using the war as an opportunity to push through extreme policies.

Ben-Gvir, the national security chief, leads the Jewish Power party and has helped arm thousands of Israeli civilians by relaxing restrictions on gun ownership. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionist Party, recently announced plans to expand settlements in the West Bank by more than 3,000 homes. Both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, who has been convicted of inciting racism and supporting terrorism, live in the West Bank.

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Life for Palestinians there has gotten markedly worse since Oct. 7, with more than 600 settler attacks against Palestinians recorded since the war broke out, according to the United Nations, and more than 1,200 Palestinians displaced from their homes.

Palestinian activist Issa Amro lives in the historic center of Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, in the midst of a heavily guarded Jewish settlement.

On the day of the Hamas attack, he was returning from work when several neighbors surprised him in an olive grove and began assaulting him. Some, he said, wore army uniforms probably left over from their military service.

A bearded man in a hat and puffer jacket standing, hands in his pant pockets, on a hill in the dark, city lights behind him

Palestinian Issa Amro says he has lived in fear since he was assaulted by settlers, then detained and beaten at a military base. He’s surrounded in Hebron, West Bank, by a heavily guarded settlement.

Amro was then taken to a military base, where he says he was detained for 10 hours and beaten.

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He said he lives in fear. Every day he passes former Palestinian businesses shuttered by settlers, as well as a sign that says: “We’re occupying Gaza now.”

“Every meter I walk, I think I may be shot,” he said.

Amro said he doesn’t blame the settlers so much as the political leaders who have allowed the settlements to flourish. He pointed to Netanyahu, who allied with Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, and to Donald Trump, who as president abandoned Washington’s long-held position that West Bank settlements violate international law. “Netanyahu made them mainstream,” Amro said. “The Trump administration made them mainstream.”

A soldier pictured from below the shoulders signals to several children playing outside, one with a bike

An Israeli soldier orders Palestinian children in the West Bank city of Hebron to go back inside, barring them from playing on the street.

President Biden has since reversed the U.S. stance on West Bank settlements — and recently imposed sanctions on four Israeli settlers for carrying out violence against Palestinians. And Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken says Washington opposes the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip by Israel and any reduction of the Palestinian territory’s size.

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Joel Carmel, a former Israeli soldier who is now a peace activist, said the future of Jewish settlements in Gaza may depend on who wins the U.S. election in November.

“Probably the only thing holding back the resettlement of Gaza is the Biden administration,” he said. “And who knows how long that’s going to last.”

Many Palestinians in the West Bank think it’s only matter of time before Israeli settlers move permanently into Gaza.

A woman in a headscarf pointing over the buildings below from her vantage point next to a metal railing

Areej Al Jaabari, who lives in Hebron, West Bank, points toward the settlement where Israel’s national security minister lives.

Areej Al Jaabari, a mother in Hebron, has watched as settlements have crept ever closer to her family home. Ben-Gvir lives in a sprawling suburban community she can see from her living room window.

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“They’re gradually accomplishing their goals,” she said of the settlers. “Eventually they will control everything in Gaza too.”

Linthicum reported from Jerusalem and from Yitzhar, Har Bracha and Hebron in the West Bank. Times staff photojournalist Marcus Yam contributed to this report from Erez Crossing, Israel.

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Fetterman hammers 'a–hole' anti-Israel protesters, slams own party for response to Iranian attack: 'Crazy'

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Fetterman hammers 'a–hole' anti-Israel protesters, slams own party for response to Iranian attack: 'Crazy'

Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., reiterated his criticisms of activists calling for cease-fire in Gaza, and slammed fellow Democrats for their “crazy” response to the attacks Iran has launched against Israel, in an interview with Fox Digital.

“It is not appropriate or legal or helpful to advance your argument if you show up in a Starbucks with a bullhorn and start yelling at people,” he told Fox News Digital in a Friday interview. 

He also claimed such protests don’t “make you noble.”

“It just makes you an a–hole,” Fetterman said. 

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Sen. John Fetterman reiterated criticisms of anti-Israel protesters disrupting travel and business. (Getty Images)

Since the onset of the war between Israel and terrorist group Hamas, anti-Israel demonstrations have erupted across the U.S. The protesters have gone to extreme lengths at times to telegraph their displeasure with U.S. policy in regard to Israel. Some have trespassed in government buildings, blocked high-traffic bridges and entered private businesses with bullhorns, chanting at employees. 

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Anti-Israel protesters demonstrate along NYPD police lines outside of Columbia University’s campus

Anti-Israel protesters demonstrate along NYPD police lines outside of Columbia University’s campus in New York City on Thursday, April 18, 2024. Multiple students were arrested as officers cleared an encampment on the campus’ lawn. (Peter Gerber for Fox News Digital)

Fetterman clarified that he is supportive of the right to protest and hold different opinions. 

“It’s very American to protest and to do that in the appropriate way,” he said. “I absolutely support that.”

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What he takes issue with, he said, is when those demonstrations “disrupt lives.”

He noted the serious implications of protesters who block traffic with their bodies on high-volume bridges and roads, explaining, “There could be people that [are in] an emergency, or they’re going to be late for work – that they could lose their job, or they have to pick up their kids or drop kids off.”

GOP LAWMAKERS SLAM BIDEN ADMINISTRATION’S NEW TITLE IX PROTECTIONS FOR ‘GENDER IDENTITY’

Protestors block Manhattan Bridge

Anti-Israel protesters demanding a Gaza cease-fire block the Manhattan Bridge in both directions in New York City on Nov. 26, 2023. (Gardiner Anderson for NY Daily News via Getty Images)

While he opposes such forms of protest, he didn’t signal interest in legislation to address them, telling Fox News Digital, it’s “not really my priority.”

“My priority is to talk about hostages,” he said, referring to those still in Hamas’ custody in Gaza. 

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The Pennsylvania senator has emerged as one of the most vocally supportive Democrats of Israel, which he reiterated in the interview, emphasizing, “We can’t ever forget Hamas started this, and they have chosen to do the most terrible, awful, unspeakable things.”

And until the hostages, including the Americans still held in Gaza, are released, Fetterman doesn’t believe the Palestinian cause for statehood can go anywhere.

“They have the power to decide, today – send everyone home and surrender, and all the trauma, the death, and everything in Gaza can end. And you can get back on the path of peace and a two-state solution,” he said.

REPUBLICANS ACCUSE BIDEN, SCHUMER OF EMBOLDENING IRAN PRIOR TO ATTACK ON ISRAEL

Israel launches strike on Iran

Israel retaliated against Iran following a drone attack on the country. (IRGC)

Many in the Democratic Party were not supportive of Israel’s decision to retaliate against Iran, which attacked the country directly last weekend. They feared any counterattacks could stoke a regional war that has the potential to draw in the U.S. But Fetterman said, “I am not going to be in a position to tell Israel what it should do. That’s their choice.” 

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“I certainly hope none of this escalates and turns into [a] more widespread” conflict, he added. 

He was critical of fellow Democrats who did not immediately condemn Iran for directly attacking Israel. “I was appalled that there were members of our party – Democrats that can’t even condemn Iran,” Fetterman remarked. “That’s crazy.”

Prompted on growing division within the Democratic Party over support for Israel, he said he can’t speak for other members. However, he reaffirmed his position as “a very confirmed and consistent voice in standing with Israel throughout all of this.”

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Nearly 3 million Californians at risk of losing home internet service as subsidy expires

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Nearly 3 million Californians at risk of losing home internet service as subsidy expires

Four years ago, Claudia Aleman and her family had only one way to get online — through their cellphones. Without internet service on a computer, her youngest daughter couldn’t get homework assignments in on time, her parents couldn’t keep up with online doctor visits, and the English classes she wanted to sign up for were out of reach.

Then came a game-changer: The federal government started offering a subsidy that covered $30 of the family’s $80 monthly internet bill.

But while opening mail at her home in South Gate two months ago, Aleman came across a letter from the Federal Communications Commission announcing that the Affordable Connectivity Program they had come to rely on would end in May unless Congress approved more funding.

Claudia Aleman of South Gate said her family did not have a computer with internet service until the federal subsidy was created.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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“My husband is the only one who works, and everything is so expensive right now,” Aleman said. “Sometimes we don’t have $30 to spare.”

“The program made a significant difference in our lives,” she added. “Without it, life is going to be difficult, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

The program, which was created after the pandemic forced many Americans to turn to the internet to connect with work and school, has 23 million enrollees nationwide — 1 in 6 U.S. households — including nearly 3 million in California.

Since 2021, it has provided a $30 monthly subsidy for low-income households and $75 for those on tribal lands. But the $14.2 billion funded through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has run out.

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April was the last month of full program benefits, but households could receive a partial discount in May.

In a letter to Congress this month, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel warned that not funding the program would have widespread impact, especially for senior citizens, veterans, schoolchildren and residents of rural and tribal communities.

“Households across the country are now facing hard choices about what expenses they have to cut, including food and gas, to maintain their broadband access, with some households doubtful they can afford to keep their broadband service at all,” she wrote.

Internet service providers have their own programs for low-income households. People can enter their address on the FCC’s broadband map to find providers in their area. The California Public Utilities Commission also provides a list of providers with low-cost internet plans.

But finding a cheaper alternative can be difficult. Rural households sometimes have just one provider, and families who can’t afford it have little recourse.

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Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) is among 228 bipartisan co-sponsors of the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024, which would provide an additional $7 billion to keep the program afloat for another year. Among the co-sponsors are 22 Republicans, including Rep. Young Kim (R-Anaheim Hills).

“You’ve got to have your head in the sand to not understand the value of what this is doing to enhance our economy, enhance the skills and opportunities for so many Americans,” Carbajal said. Allowing the program to expire, he said, “will undo the progress we’ve made in closing the digital divide. It would take us back to the dark ages.”

 A man holding a paper speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) has sponsored legislation to fund the internet subsidy for another year.

(House Television via AP)

But the bill hasn’t been brought for a standalone floor vote in the GOP-led House amid criticism from some Republicans who say the program subsidizes households that already had internet service. They also pointed to findings from the FCC’s internal watchdog last year that providers failed to comply with the program’s rules and improperly claimed funds.

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In a statement last year, Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the program was “subject to massive waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars.”

In an FCC survey of 5,300 households conducted in December, more than two-thirds of respondents said they had inconsistent or no internet before joining the federal program, the majority citing affordability. About one-third of respondents said they had both mobile and home internet service.

In October, the Biden administration sent Congress a supplemental request for $6 billion to keep the program running, but it didn’t pass.

Letting the program lapse, even if it could be restarted later, would require additional spending on outreach and re-enrollment, Carbajal said. He also worries that people who benefit from it will feel a sense of whiplash and lose trust in the federal government.

California recently dedicated $70 million in federal funding toward affordable internet service, devices and training. Carbajal said he’s glad to see his state acting, but it’s not enough.

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“We can’t look at it from a parochial standpoint,” he said. “I’m not just looking out for the Central Coast and my state — I’m looking out for the entire nation.”

Still, Carbajal said he’s optimistic something will take hold before May 1. Similar circumstances have played out favorably at the last minute, he said.

In Los Angeles, the federal program has played an important role in the county’s effort to close the digital divide, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through local promotion, enrollment in Los Angeles grew to nearly 1 million households.

County officials partnered with the nonprofit EveryoneOn to get the word out. Chief Executive Norma Fernandez worries families will be confused when they see their internet bill go up and won’t understand why the program ended.

“We tried so hard and provided tons of hands-on support to get people connected and then we’re going to pull it away from them,” she said. “It’s going to cause hopelessness.”

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Claudia Aleman in the living room of her family home with photos on the wall.

Claudia Aleman’s family has benefited from subsidized internet service through the Affordable Connectivity Program that is running out of funds.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

For Aleman’s family, the pandemic changed everything. When schools first shut down, they relied on a Los Angeles County Unified School District program that offered free internet to eligible students.

But the service was unreliable — access would frequently drop or freeze up. So Aleman started leaving her daughter Miranda, now 11, with her sister and neighbors who had reliable internet access so that she could attend online classes and do her homework.

“I think my daughter lost an entire school year,” she said.

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Their need for internet access at home hasn’t changed since schools reopened. Most of Miranda’s assignments are still online.

Life improved almost immediately after they enrolled in the federal subsidy program in 2022 and got internet access through AT&T. Miranda started turning in assignments on time. Aleman’s older daughters, 17 and 21, could do their schoolwork at home instead of at the library or relatives’ homes.

It also made a difference for her parents. Her father, who is diabetic, takes nutrition courses online, and her mother, who is asthmatic, needs regular video checkups with her doctor. And Aleman could finally stay in regular contact with family in Mexico.

Since learning that the program would end, Aleman said she has been applying for jobs to help her husband cover bills. In May, her husband will pay the internet bill, possibly with credit cards.

Beyond that, she said, “there’s always the library.”

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Satanic Temple co-founder challenges Florida Gov DeSantis to debate on religious freedoms

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Satanic Temple co-founder challenges Florida Gov DeSantis to debate on religious freedoms

The Satanic Temple’s (TST) co-founder challenged Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to a debate on religious freedom after the governor singled out satanists by saying they were not allowed to participate in a new chaplain program signed into law last week.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law that allows school districts to adopt volunteer school chaplain services.

Under the bill, each school in the state has the option to adopt a policy allowing volunteer school chaplains to provide support services and programs for students. The bill also requires principals of schools with volunteer school chaplains to inform all parents of the services being provided, while also requiring written parental consent before students participate or receive the services.

On Thursday, DeSantis stressed the program was “totally voluntary for a parent or a student to participate.”

FLORIDA BILLS WOULD ALLOW SATANIC PRIESTS TO SERVE AS VOLUNTEER CHAPLAINS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said The Satanic Temple is not a religion. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

He also made clear that members of TST would not be able to serve as public school chaplains.

“Some have said that if you do a school chaplain program, that, somehow, you’re going to have satanists running around in all our schools. We’re not playing those games in Florida,” DeSantis assured the people in the crowd. “That is not a religion. That is not qualified to be able to participate in this. So, we’re going to be using common sense when it comes to this. You don’t have to worry about it.”

As the bill moved through the state legislative process, TST threatened to sue the state if any of its members were banned from serving as chaplains in the program.

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After School Satan Lucien Temple

Lucien Greaves, is spokesman for The Satanic Temple, photographed outside a Salem courthouse. (Josh Reynolds for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

TST co-founder, Lucien Greaves told Fox News Digital the governor has made multiple comments about the organization without any knowledge of who they are or what they believe.

“This should be of significant concern to anybody, regardless of their own religious views,” Greaves said. “Worse, in signing HB 931 into law, the governor simply announced, from the podium at a press conference, that Satanists were to be considered unqualified for the school chaplaincy program while citing no legal theory to support his view.”

The co-founder of TST said the legislation indicates DeSantis is unaware of how the law works and unaware that the bill he signed into law “does in fact allow Satanic chaplains in schools,” revealing the governor is unaware of the limits of his authority.

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Baphomet/Satanic Temple

The Baphomet statue is seen in the conversion room at the Satanic Temple in Salem, Massachusetts, on Oct. 8, 2019. (JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images)

After making the comments, Greaves posted on X that the IRS recognizes TST as a tax-exempt church.

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“If FL’s Republican administration deliberately excludes the group from the state’s new school chaplain program, that would constitute the kind of discrimination that would likely fail in court,” he posted.

The executive director of operations at TST, Rachel Chambliss, also sent an invitation to DeSantis to participate in a public debate with Greaves, regarding their status as a federally recognized religious organization.

“In light of Governor DeSantis’ recent remarks concerning our involvement in Florida’s new School Chaplain program, we find ourselves in respectful disagreement,” Chambliss wrote. “We believe that a public debate would provide an excellent platform to thoroughly discuss the principles of religious freedom in America.”

DeSantis’ office did not respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment on the matter.

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Still, Greaves called the governor’s actions “erroneous.”

“If I am correct, and DeSantis is merely engaging in empty grandstanding with a complete disregard for the intelligence of the people of Florida, he will surely ignore this challenge,” Greaves added.

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