In rare move, security forces evacuate illegal West Bank outpost

Settlers burn tires and scatter spikes on road to outpost; settlers, security sources say Smotrich gave green light for evacuation; no comment from far-right leader

Israeli forces demolish a building at an illegal West Bank outpost on August 14, 2023 (Screencapture/Twitter used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Israeli forces demolish a building at an illegal West Bank outpost on August 14, 2023 (Screencapture/Twitter used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Security forces evacuated an illegal West Bank outpost early Monday morning, in a rare move for a hardline government that includes some of the staunchest settlement proponents.

Officials from the Civil Administration, backed by police, destroyed or evacuated five buildings in the “Aira Shahar” outpost near the settlement of Kochav Hashahar.

Right-wing activists and residents of the outpost tried to oppose the evacuation by burning tires and scattering spikes on the road leading to the outpost. Minor scuffles also broke out at the scene.

The order to evacuate and destroy the outpost was approved by leader of the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, despite his pro-settlement stance and advocacy for the annexation of the West Bank.

A source close to Smotrich, who also serves as an additional minister in the Defense Ministry with authority over civilian issues in the West Bank, said the land on which Aira Shahar was built was definitively private Palestinian land, meaning it would have been completely impossible to legalize the outpost.

The source added that there had also been “a demand from the defense  establishment and legal professionals for enforcement” against the structures at the outpost.

Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech (right) stands at the site of the Aira Shahar illegal West Bank outpost alongside a resident of the outpost, after it was evacuated and razed by Israeli security forces early Monday morning, August 14, 2023. (Courtesy: Office of MK Limor Son Har-Melech)

“To our great regret, we were not able to reach a solution to transfer them [the buildings] to nearby state land in order to legalize them as we have done in other places, for example in Homesh,” the source added, referencing the recent transfer of an illegal outpost in the northern West Bank to state land, a move that Smotrich allegedly assisted with.

“On our watch, we are building and legalizing in the settlements at an unprecedented scale, and doing it wisely, with authorization, and with permission,” the source added.

There was no immediate comment from the military on the evacuation.

MK Limor Son Har-Melech of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party visited the site of the destroyed outpost on Monday morning, and initially blamed Gallant and the head of the IDF Central Command, not Smotrich, for the evacuation.

“I’ve seen the destruction and devastation they have wrought here on the orders of the defense minister and the [Central] Command general, who time after time are cruel to, and abuse, settlers,” said the MK, an ardent proponent of the settlement movement.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a press conference in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Son Har-Melech said the buildings destroyed on Monday were new structures, although the Civil Administration, a department of the Defense Ministry, maintains they had been in place for some time.

“Anyone who thinks they will silence us and destroy and abuse the settlements without a response is making a big mistake,” warned the ultranationalist MK. “We will continue to fight for the settlements around the entire Land of Israel.”

But following her visit, she expressed anger with the response issued by the source close to Smotrich, arguing that Aira Shahar should not have been destroyed by the government.

“I can in no way accept the comment by ‘close associates of Smotrich’ about destroying buildings in the Land of Israel,” she said derisively on Twitter of the manner in which the finance minister’s office had explained the evacuation of the outpost. “Even if right now it is impossible to legalize this specific settlement, it is forbidden to destroy it.”

The evacuation of Aira Shahar was the second time that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has evacuated a settlement outpost.

In January, in the first weeks of the government’s tenure, forces evacuated the Or Chaim outpost on the order of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, sparking a clash with Smotrich.

Under coalition agreements, Smotrich, the finance minister, was also appointed a minister within the Defense Ministry with oversight of civilian affairs in the West Bank.

Outpost residents said that Smotrich and his aides had been unreachable since the start of the evacuation.

While the international community considers all settlements 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.

However, outposts are sometimes erected with the state’s tacit approval, and successive governments have sought to legalize at least some of the unrecognized neighborhoods as a result.

Recent months have also seen a rise in settler violence, with the United Nations on Friday reporting there have been nearly 600 attacks on Palestinians and their property over the past six months.

The Israeli defense establishment recorded similar numbers during that period.

This has included several violent rampages through Palestinian towns and the killing two weeks ago of a Palestinian man near Ramallah.

Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said last week that violence by settlers in the West Bank against Palestinians was spurring more Palestinians to carry out acts of terror.

“Let there be no doubt, these things spur the civilian [Palestinian] population to terror. The nationalist crime and nationalist terror… push civilians in the Palestinian Authority who are not involved in terror — to terror,” he said.

“This phenomenon needs to be addressed. As soon as this phenomenon is avoided, there will be less terrorism in general,” Hagari added.

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