HOMESH, West Bank — Standing at the highest point of the evacuated settlement of Homesh, David pointed north toward Dotan Valley. “That was where Joseph was sold by his brothers into slavery,” he said, referring to the Biblical story.

Was that how he felt about his government’s decision to evacuate the settlement in 2005? The 26-year-old nodded in the affirmative.

David is one of 26 yeshiva students who ascend each day from their caravan dorms in the nearby settlement of Shavei Shomron to study on the hilltop ruins of what was once the settlement of Homesh. The yeshiva was established by Rabbi Elishama Cohen and director Benny Gal in September 2006 — a year after Homesh was evacuated along with three other northern West Bank settlements as part of Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

Passed by the Knesset in February 2005, the Disengagement Plan Implementation Law made illegal the presence of Israeli civilians in the four evacuated settlements, once part of the Samaria Regional Council.

Some settlers point to a 2007 Kfar Saba juvenile court ruling that determined such presence to be permissible because the disengagement law was only relevant when the evacuations were taking place.

However, Gilad Grossman, spokesman for the Israeli legal rights group Yesh Din, explained that the juvenile court decision does not have binding legal status, as opposed to a Lod District Court decision in February, which upheld that aspect of the disengagement law.

Nevertheless, the students of Yeshivat Homesh have continued to ascend the mountain, frequently staying overnight or celebrating the Sabbath on the community’s ruins.

They are not the only Israelis to do so. Large groups of settlers have attempted to celebrate various holidays in Homesh since the evacuation 12 years ago. While they generally drive up in makeshift convoys without disturbance from nearby Palestinians or Israeli authorities, there have been a number of exceptions. In September 2007, the army ordered dozens of settlers to leave the mountain in the middle of the Rosh Hashanah (New Year) festival due to what the IDF described as an imminent security threat.

“We have no intention of stopping,” said yeshiva spokesman Asher Vodka. “A law against the Torah is not a law we can abide by.”

“This is our responsibility as Jews. To return to all parts of Judea and Samaria. Even when our own people try and stop us,” David said.

But with the smell of smoke still lingering in the air after a recent arson attack, the students’ commitment is being tested.

Vodka said a group of Palestinian youths protesting in solidarity with hunger-striking security prisoners ascended the mountain of Homesh, setting fire to large patches of land as they rushed to the peak. The demonstration was part of a broader day of clashes that coincided with US President Donald Trump’s arrival in Israel on May 22.

The yeshiva’s makeshift study hall fell victim to the blaze. The students had erected the building several years earlier using large stones and wooden boards as walls and sheets of metal for the roof. The structure, stable enough to have survived the wind and rainstorms of winter, was unrecognizable when the settlers arrived back at Homesh the next day.

Though they were not present at the time of the attack, Vodka said, the students were aware of what had unfolded in real-time. They had gone up the mountain as usual that morning and made it through a half-day of learning before an IDF jeep pulled up to their study hall. The soldiers asked them to return to Shavei Shomron as they could not protect them from the approaching mob of protesters.

IDF and Israeli officials had no response to the allegations implicating the Palestinians in the arson.

The yeshiva spokesperson, who described the students’ relationship with the army as “tense but largely respectful,” said the group complied with the IDF’s request and left the mountain. They finished the rest of the day’s learning in their more permanent structure in Shavei Shomron. As they studied, though, smoke could be seen billowing from the mountain to the north.

The remains of the torched Yeshivat Homesh in the northern West Bank on May 23, 2017. (Courtesy: Yeshivat Homesh)

The remains of the torched Yeshivat Homesh in the northern West Bank on May 23, 2017. (Courtesy: Yeshivat Homesh)

The students had taken their Torah scroll with them when they heeded the army’s command, but the prayer books left behind were found burnt and scattered on the ground when a small group returned to check on the site later that evening.

By the next day, the atmosphere was unabashedly defiant. As the young settlers began clearing the rubble, a group of four began dancing in a circle, singing “What’s done is done. The important thing is to start over!”

Explaining the joyous mood, Vodka said that they were “happy to serve God and happy to grapple with this struggle.”

Through the cracks

As they rebuild the study hall, the students have been very cautious about speaking with the media for fear of drawing attention to their illegal construction.

However, their worries may not be necessary.

It isn’t clear which Israeli authority is responsible for enforcing the disengagement law. And despite the 2005 evacuation, Homesh has actually remained part of Area C of the West Bank, meaning it is still under full Israeli civil and military control.

A kindergarten teacher takes her children for a walk in the settlement of Homesh on July 22, 2005. Nati (Shohat/Flash90)

A kindergarten teacher takes her children for a walk in the settlement of Homesh on July 22, 2005. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Calls to the IDF Spokesperson, the Civil Administration, the Israel Police and the Defense Ministry saw each party placing responsibility for enforcement on one of the other authorities.

This is not to suggest, though, that the students plan on abiding by the orders of Israeli law enforcement regardless.

“These are the same bodies that helped evict the people of Homesh from their homes over a decade ago,” David said. “But it is not just them that need to repent. All of the nation of Israel needs to repent for their sins against the people of Homesh.”

“There was an entire community here that was destroyed,” he said. David pointed to where a pool and elementary school once stood. “Unfortunately, the nation of Israel did not agree to keep this going,” he said.

Secular pioneers

Homesh was established in 1978 on 173 acres of land seized by the army from the Palestinian village of Burqa for “security purposes.” While the original intent had been to build a military outpost there, such an outcome never materialized and the territory was handed over to a group of secular pioneers looking to settle in the area.

A landmark 1979 High Court decision ruled that settlements cannot be built on land confiscated for “security purposes.” However, Dror Etkes of the settlement watchdog Kerem Navot, explaiined that the ruling was not retroactive. “Homesh was allowed to remain and the Palestinians were not allowed to return to their land,” he said.

Calls to the IDF Spokesperson, the Civil Administration, the Israel Police, and the Defense Ministry saw each party placing responsibility for enforcement on one of the other authorities

Between 50 and 60 secular families lived in Homesh for two decades before the Second Intifada broke out in 2000. After four residents were murdered in various terror attacks, the settlement saw half of its families leave for cities within the Green Line. It was then that a garin, a core group of religious Zionists, arrived to “strengthen the community’s numbers and spirit,” as David put it.

Even after the 2005 evacuation of the settlement, the IDF’s seizure order remained in effect, preventing Palestinians from accessing the land. In 2011, Yesh Din along with several Burqa residents filed a petition with the High Court of Justice demanding that the seizure order be revoked. Shortly before their appeal was set to be heard in court two years later, the state announced that it would revoke the order, a move that Yesh Din lawyers believe to be unprecedented.

But despite the annulment, Palestinians have been unable to reclaim Homesh. “The army and the settlers block us from going up the mountain to rework our land,” said Amjad, a resident of Burqa. “They all have weapons and we are scared of what they will do to us if we go up there.”

The 60-year-old farmer admitted that the youths who had set Homesh ablaze the week before were likely Burqa residents, but insisted that they must have been provoked by the yeshiva students. “Those people do not want peace. They just want to steal more land,” he said.

Israeli settlers play on the water tower in the evacuated West Bank settlement of Homesh on June 12. 2007. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

Israeli settlers on the water tower in the evacuated West Bank settlement of Homesh on June 12, 2007. (Maya Levin/Flash90)

The fire seems to have had an opposite effect from the one the arsonists likely had hoped for. In a statement released following the attack, Yeshivat Homesh said the students were “preparing to build an even larger structure that will help strengthen their grip on the community.”

Again insisting that the area was not under its jurisdiction, the army refused to comment.