KFAR ETZION, West Bank — Despite doing his best to flatter settlers with praise and promises, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a lukewarm reception at an official state ceremony Wednesday celebrating 50 years of settlement in the West Bank and Golan Heights.
As he opened his speech thanking the roughly 2,500 present for what he described as their “warm welcome,” a group of roughly a dozen residents from the illegal Netiv Ha’avot outpost walked through a passageway in the middle of the crowd, holding signs that called on him to prevent the upcoming demolition of their neighborhood in the Gush Etzion bloc. “Enough of the demolitions,” the signs read.
Netanyahu told the crowd his government is “taking care of the families” of the outpost, which the High Court of Justice sanctioned for razing on March 8, 2018 due to its presence on private Palestinian land.
Despite the assurances, and name dropping a number of settler leaders, whom he described as “dear friends,” Netanyahu received only tepid applause throughout, with the most enthusiastic reaction only coming at the conclusion of the speech when the prime minister praised the IDF.
The protests and crowd’s lack of enthusiasm reflected deep disappointment among many in the settler community with Netanyahu’s inability to skirt court orders clamping down on illegal outposts, despite his administration often being described as the mostly settlement-friendly in recent years.
The past year has seen the demolition of the Amona outpost and several homes in the nearby settlement of Ofra found to have been built on private Palestinian land, with Netiv Ha’avot next on the chopping block, despite government efforts to delay court-ordered evacuations.
While his government has approved thousands of new homes in the West Bank in recent years, Netanyahu has also indicated he is willing to work with Washington on curbing some building, angering settler leaders who had hoped for unfettered construction under US President Donald Trump.
As he did in at a similar jubilee celebration in August, Netanyahu pledged not to uproot another Israeli settlement. “Settlement is important to you in the same way that it is important to me,” he told the crowd.
But a statement from Netiv Ha’avot representatives following the event indicated that they were unimpressed. “The prime minister thinks that the upcoming demolition of our neighborhood is not the same as an uprooting?” they asked rhetorically.
The crowd outside the event, which took place in a makeshift amphitheater with many bleachers unfilled in the local government seat of the Etzion settlement bloc, was even tougher.
Over one hundred activists from the Peace Now settlement watchdog greeted Netanyahu’s motorcade when it rolled into the parking lot outside the Kfar Etzion compound south of Jerusalem. The demonstrators held signs and chanted slogans criticizing the government’s West Bank policy.
Organizers criticized both the settlement movement and what critics have described as the political nature of the event, which at times was used as a soapbox for the hard-right flank of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.
“We are here because there is no reason for celebration,” Peace Now CEO Avi Buskila told the ralliers. “We are all witnesses to a political event under the fake cover of ‘statesmanship,'” he said referring to the ceremony’s official status as a state ceremony. “We are here to raise a voice in the name of the vast majority of the citizens of Israel who desire life and strongly oppose the settlement enterprise.”
The ceremony had made waves over the past several days after a Channel 1 report claimed that the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid opposition parties were boycotting the event. Right wing lawmakers and settler leaders subsequently slammed the pair of factions for doing so. But party leaders Avi Gabbay (Zionist Union) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) each released statements denying the report, charging their critics and the Netanyahu government with playing petty politics. Gabbay had said his issue was with the event becoming politicized, not necessarily the settlements, and Lapid said a representative from his centrist faction would attend.
In the end, the lone lawmaker present from the opposition was Yesh Atid’s Haim Jelin. While he made a point of mentioning his disapproval of the government’s policy vis a vis the West Bank, Jelin told The Times of Israel that he was “saddened” that he was the only non-coalition MK present. “This is an event that is supposed to connect people rather than divide them,” he said.
The lawmaker went on to insist that “the settlement movement is in my blood.”
Also present at the ceremony were ambassadors from Kenya, Myanmar, Rwanda, Angola and Nepal.
Speaking with The Times of Israel, Kenya’s acting ambassador Jon Chessoni dismissed the notion that his attendance projected any sort of demonstration of his country’s approval of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “I support the two-state solution” he said. “I came here out of respect for the government of Israel that invited me.”
Separate from the rumors of an opposition boycott, justices of the Supreme Court announced Tuesday that they would be skipping the ceremony, deeming it “inappropriate” for attendance by representatives of the court. In her Wednesday response to a petition from the pro-settlement Regavim NGO, Justice Miriam Naor referred to the state event as “devoted to one side.”
Speaking with reporters prior to the ceremony, Culture Minister Miri Regev criticized the supreme court justice’s comments. “I respect her, but she crossed a dangerous red line here in Israeli democracy.”
“The government of Israel is the only one that determines what ceremony is an official one,” she said, adding that Naor does not have the authority to boycott official celebrations.
“This is the first time that the judiciary has not attended a state event,” Regev added. “This bolsters those who boycott Israel, the BDS movement and UNESCO.”
While the intended message of those who didn’t attend may have gotten muddled, those who did go, including several members seated toward the back that heckled Netanyahu toward the end of his address, hoped their disapproval was broadcast crystal clear.
“It was a lovely ceremony, but I hope the prime minister received the message that our support for him is not unconditional, said Nokdim resident Shira Flaster as she left the event. “We respect him and recognize that he’s represented us well in the world, but that’s not enough.”