OZ VEGAON, West Bank — Speaking at a ceremony marking three years to the establishment of an outpost built after kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, settler leaders said Sunday that the advancement of the settlement enterprise is the most appropriate response to Palestinian terror.
Some 500 people gathered at the illegal Oz Vegaon outpost for the event, which was organized by the World Zionist Organization, the Gush Etzion Regional Council, the Jewish National Fund, and Yehudit Katzover and Nadia Matar, two founders of the outpost.
“Today, our hearts are full of strength and pride,” said WZO’s Deputy Chair Yaakov Haguel, using the two Hebrew words chosen for the name of the site. “Our enemies will destroy and we will build. Our enemies will incite and we will establish.”
Oz Vegaon was founded weeks after the June 12, 2014, disappearance of Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer. The three teens had inadvertently hitched a ride from a bus stop at the Alon Shvut Junction in Gush Etzion with terrorists from a Hamas cell. Their fate was unknown for almost three weeks — until their bodies were found and it emerged that they had been killed mere hours after the kidnapping.
Following the kidnapping, Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in the West Bank in an attempt to crack down on Hamas and to track down the three. It was only 18 days later that their remains were found buried in a field north of Hebron, not far from where they had been abducted.
The fierce crackdown on Hamas was answered with heavy rocket fire from the Strip in an escalating clash that spiraled into all-out war a few weeks later. Over 70 Israelis were killed in the conflict, most of them soldiers, and over 2,000 were killed on the Palestinian side — at least half of them combatants, according to Israel — in an intense bombing campaign and ground invasion in Gaza.
Just hours after the bodies of the three teens were laid to rest on June 30, 2014, Katzover and Matar led members of the Women in Green pro-settlement group along with a collective of youth from Gush Etzion to begin staking out the Oz Vegaon site — a hill adjacent to Gush Etzion Junction and Kibbutz Migdal Oz that is designated as state land.
A widespread renovation of the area commenced with the help of groups of new immigrants from Russia and Ukraine. By the end of the summer of 2014, Oz Vegaon was opened to tourists as a campsite and hosting grounds for cultural events in memory of Shaer, Fraenkel, and Yifrach, who were said to have been deeply connected to the landscape.
The second word in the nature reserve name, “Vegaon,” was chosen using the first-name initials of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali in Hebrew.
Representatives from each of their families were present at Sunday’s commemoration.
Yifrach’s father, Uri, addressed the crowd briefly, telling attendees: “In the place of death and destruction there is flowering and building here. This is the true Zionist response to the terrible event that took place not far from here.”
While some of the speakers took the opportunity to discuss what they viewed as the modern-day challenges to Zionism, the overarching theme was how West Bank settlement activity helped preserve the memory of the three slain teens.
“About three years ago we accompanied the three boys to their final resting place. Three boys, students and children of Gush Etzion, who symbolize unity and connection to the land,” said Gush Etzion Regional Council Chairman Shlomo Neeman. “Who would have believed that in this place, which was once neglected and deserted, such a magnificent project could thrive and flourish?”
Also during the ceremony, organizers inaugurated a “Zionism Boulevard” at the heart of the reserve, commemorating the 120th anniversary of the Zionist Congress.
Gush Etzion Regional Council spokesman Eliya Mor Yosef referred to the establishment of the outpost as “price-tag building,” employing the phrase used to characterize vandalism and other hate crimes carried out by Jewish ultra-nationalists, ostensibly in retaliation for Palestinian actions and government policies perceived as hostile to the settler movement.
Mor Yosef told The Times of Israel that “contrary to the lawless attacks against Palestinians, the construction of the campsite was a more positive response to Palestinian terror.”
Three families live in caravans at Oz Vegaon, which was a neglected forest filled with garbage before it was converted into a nature reserve by the Women in Green group.
It is one of roughly 100 outposts built without the authorization of the government and against Israeli law.