Rights group decries 'incentive' for violations of int'l law

IDF general revokes order barring Israelis from illegal West Bank outpost of Homesh

Far-right minister Smotrich hails decree paving way to reestablish settlement evacuated in 2005; US Embassy in Israel says Washington ‘deeply troubled’ by move

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

View of the unauthorized outpost of Homesh, in the West Bank, on November 17, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
View of the unauthorized outpost of Homesh, in the West Bank, on November 17, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The chief of the military’s Central Command has signed off on an order allowing Israelis to enter an area in the northern West Bank where the illegal outpost of Homesh was established, paving the way for a formal settlement to be built there.

Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox signed the order on Thursday, declaring the Homesh area part of the Samaria Regional Council.

The order was shared Saturday night on social media by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also a junior minister in the Defense Ministry, which gives him broad authority over civilian issues in the West Bank.

“We promised to authorize the continued Torah study at the yeshiva in Homesh, and we are fulfilling that,” Smotrich said on Twitter.

In March, lawmakers okayed a rollback of legislation that ordered the evacuation of four northern West Bank settlements concurrent with Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The law repealed clauses of the 2005 Disengagement Law that banned Israelis from the area where the settlements of Homesh, Ganim, Kadim and Sa-Nur once stood.

The latter three are still illegal to enter.

The repeal bolstered the right-wing and religious government’s efforts to legalize a wildcat outpost currently occupying the site of Homesh and a yeshiva that has been built there, which activists have tried repeatedly to reestablish since 2005. Over the years, authorities have frequently demolished structures at the site.

While the international community considers all settlements in the West Bank illegal, Israel differentiates between settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.

Homesh itself is built partly private Palestinian land, according to a High Court ruling.

Repealing restrictions on Jewish entry in March was a required step toward legalizing the outpost. Even with the repeal, an Israel Defense Forces order continued to prevent Israelis from entering Homesh and the other areas until now.

File: Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fox tours the scene of a shooting attack in the West Bank town of Huwara, March 26, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces).

The anti-settlement Yesh Din rights group slammed the new order, saying the illegal outpost was built on private Palestinian land belonging to residents of the nearby village of Burqa.

“The entry of Israelis into the area is another tool to dispossess the residents of their lands. The process of authorizing the outpost is a reward and incentive for criminals and a violation of international law,” Yesh Din said in a statement.

Watchdogs and opponents of the bill passed in March warned that the law could be used to further expand settlement activity in the region in general, and lead to a de facto annexation of large parts of the West Bank, undermining Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state.

The bill has been contentious internationally and violates a major Israeli commitment to the administration of former president George W. Bush to ensure enough Palestinian contiguity for a viable future state, as the United States under Bush agreed for the first time to recognize the need for land swaps in any potential peace deal and take into account Israeli settlement blocs.

Asked for comment on the latest move allowing Israelis to enter Homesh, the US Embassy in Israel told The Times of Israel that it was “deeply troubled.”

“The United States strongly urges Israel to refrain from allowing the return of Israeli settlers to the area covered by the legislation passed in March, consistent with both former PM Sharon’s and the current Israeli government’s commitments to the United States,” a spokesperson said.

“We have been clear that advancing settlements is an obstacle to peace and the achievement of a two-state solution. This certainly includes creating new settlements, building or legalizing outposts, or allowing building of any kind on private Palestinian land or deep in the West Bank adjacent to Palestinian communities,” the US Embassy spokesperson added.

Visitors walk by the water tower on the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Homesh on August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, meanwhile, hailed the move. “This is a holiday. An important day in the history of the State of Israel. A day when historical justice was done for one of the greatest injustices in this country to the Land of Israel and to Israeli citizens,” he said in a statement.

Reclaiming Homesh has become an important cause for backers of settlements, who have engaged in a years-long cat-and-mouse game with the IDF of destroying and rebuilding an illegal yeshiva and some living quarters on the hilltop.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has pledged to preserve the yeshiva, despite court orders to demolish it.

In January, the High Court of Justice ordered the government to explain why the illegal settlement should not be evacuated. The government told the High Court of Justice that it had reversed the previous government’s commitment to evacuate Homesh and instead would seek to legalize the outpost by repealing the relevant clause of the Disengagement Law.

The state was responding to a petition by Yesh Din, which demanded the outpost be removed and the Palestinian residents of the nearby village of Burqa be given access to their private land, on which the outpost sits.

Although the government hopes the repeal of the Disengagement Law will facilitate the legalization of Homesh, High Court justices expressed doubt that the settlement could be legalized given that it is built largely on private Palestinian land.

Carrie Keller-Lynn, Jeremy Sharon, Jacob Magid, and Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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