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Gantz said to tell rebel Yamina MK that authorizing illegal outpost may take months

Idit Silman and right-wing backers have been pushing to populate Evyatar quickly; defense minister also notifies lawmaker of plans to raze yeshiva at Homesh outpost

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Minister of Defense Benny Gantz with MK Idit Silman during a plenum session at the Knesset, February 28, 2022.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Minister of Defense Benny Gantz with MK Idit Silman during a plenum session at the Knesset, February 28, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz has told rebel Yamina MK Idit Silman that it might take several months until his office will be able to retroactively authorize an illegal West Bank outpost, according to a Thursday report.

Channel 12 noted that this was not welcome news for Silman and other settlement supporters in the Knesset, who have been waiting for months to announce a return to Evyatar after dozens of squatters agreed to leave the northern West Bank hilltop community as part of an agreement with the government last July.

According to the Channel 12 report, Gantz told Silman that he is preparing to move forward with the land seizure but once he does, opponents will have 45 days to submit legal objections to the move. Only after that period has elapsed will the settlers be allowed to return to the dozens of mobile homes they’ve erected at the site, Gantz said, adding that a further extension could be added.

This timeframe apparently did not satisfy Silman, who left the meeting discouraged, according to Channel 12.

She was further unnerved when Gantz told her that he would be ordering the demolition of construction at the Homesh outpost, the network said.

Homesh was one of four northern West Bank settlements that were evacuated in 2005 as part of the Gaza Disengagement. Israeli law bars citizens from returning to the sites of the razed settlements, but this has not stopped a group of ultra-nationalists from illegally operating a religious seminary on the site for roughly 15 years, even receiving periodic protection from the IDF. Their presence has blocked Palestinians from farming their lands, despite several court rulings ordering that they be given access.

The West Bank outpost of Evyatar, on July 5, 2021. (Flash90)

Homesh rose to the headlines last December when one of the students from the seminary was killed in a terror shooting while on the way home from his studies.

Since the attack, settlers have sought to pressure the government to legalize the yeshiva. While some had been under the impression that Gantz could be moved on the matter, the defense minister told Silman Wednesday that he would not allow for the violation of Israeli law. To Gantz, it is a question of when, not if the Homesh yeshiva will be demolished, according to the Channel 12 report.

But in an apparent effort to offer a carrot to settlers, Gantz told Silman that the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction would be convening in the coming weeks, possibly as soon as the first week in May, in order to advance a new batch of settlement projects.

The Civil Administration’s High Planning Subcommittee last met in October to green-light plans for nearly 3,000 settlement homes. The approvals sparked the harshest critique yet from the Biden administration, which called them “completely inconsistent with efforts to lower tensions and restore calm.”

Gantz has subsequently prevented the panel from reconvening. It usually does so on a quarterly basis, though longer periods have passed without a meeting, even when the prime minister was Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump occupied the White House.

Israeli forces fire tear gas at Palestinian protesters gathering in the West Bank against a march by Israelis to the wildcat settlement outpost of Homesh, on April 19, 2022. (Jaafar Ashitiyeh/AFP)

Silman’s meeting with Gantz was scheduled before the Yamina MK announced her resignation from the coalition earlier this month, robbing the bloc of its slim majority in the Knesset.

Two coalition officials told The Times of Israel that much of the reason that brought Silman to make the decision was the growing frustration within Yamina over Gantz’s unwillingness to budge on settlement issues.

Yamina MK Nir Orbach, who still remains in the coalition, has warned Bennett that he’ll follow Silman if there is no movement on these issues in the near future.

The Likud and Religious Zionism opposition parties jumped on the Channel 12 report, issuing statements claiming that Gantz and the rest of the government were “surrendering to terror.”

The Evyatar deal traded a peaceful evacuation by the settlers in exchange for the government agreeing to allow the illegal homes they had erected to remain in place while carrying out a survey of the land. The government said then that if a majority of the land was found to have been built on what the state deems can be declared public lands, it would retroactively legalize the outpost.

To the settlers’ glee, the survey came up in their favor, though Palestinians in nearby Beita have objected to settlers’ claims to the land, saying it had historically been farmed by them.

Aerial footage from 1980 appears to confirm that at least part of the land on which the outpost sits used to be farmed by private Palestinian landowners. But Israeli law allows the state to seize West Bank lands if they go uncultivated for long periods of time, and this tactic has been used to seize large areas across the West Bank for settlers. Palestinians argue that part of the reason the land goes uncultivated is that the IDF and settlers prevent them from reaching it, citing security concerns.

Evyatar was illegally established by settlers in 2013 in response to the killing of Evyatar Borovsky in a terror shooting at the nearby Tapuah Junction. It has been demolished several times by authorities in years since, and rebuilt by settlers.

But the squatters worked more methodically last year, settling in the midst of the Gaza war when the attention of security forces was elsewhere. Enough time passed before security forces were ready to move on the site, adding bureaucratic complications to the razing.

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, center, leads a march to Homesh alongside MKs Itamar Ben Gvir, second right, Idit Silman, right, and Bezalel Smotrich, left. (Samaria Regional Council)

The outpost’s re-establishment has sparked weekly protests by the Palestinian residents of neighboring Beita. The demonstrations have often been violent, leading to clashes with IDF troops who have responded using force, in violence that has taken the lives of at least 10 Palestinians over the past year.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has warned Gantz and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that legalizing the outpost would strain Israel’s ties with the Biden administration, which has been adamant in its opposition to such unilateral moves, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

A legal opinion signed by then-attorney general Avichai Mandelblit in February paved the way for the state to seize the Evyatar land for public use.

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