Large military force gathers outside site

In test for coalition, illegal West Bank outpost set up in name of Rabbi Druckman

Organizers say site deliberately chosen to foil Palestinian territorial contiguity, call on Netanyahu government not to raze it like the previous government did

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Otzma Yedudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech (3R) poses with activists who set up an illegal outpost in the West Bank on January 20, 2023 (Courtesy)
Otzma Yedudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech (3R) poses with activists who set up an illegal outpost in the West Bank on January 20, 2023 (Courtesy)

Five families established an illegal outpost on a strategic hilltop in the northern West Bank overnight Thursday, marking one month since the death of religious Zionist leader Rabbi Chaim Druckman, in a potential test for the new government.

The outpost, named Or Chaim, was intentionally built near the settlement of Migdalim and overlooks the Trans-Samarian highway in order to disrupt Palestinian territorial contiguity, the founders told Hebrew media.

Neve Schindler, Druckman’s grandson and a leader of the initiative, said the founding of the settlement was “the best way to commemorate my grandfather,” and hoped more families would join.

“We call on the entire nation of Israel to come to strengthen and join our activities. The campaign for Judea and Samaria does not stop for a moment, we need you with us to win,” Schindler said, using the biblical name for the West Bank.

Druckman was one of the key founders of the settler movement, Gush Emunim — literally the Believers’ Bloc — and was a major player in Israel’s politics for decades. His movement eventually shifted the religious Zionism political mainstream from the center-left position it had maintained at the founding of the state to the right, and then to the far right, where it stands today.

Yedaya Stein, another member of the group, explained the actions of the family as a response to the “systematic take over by the Palestinian Authority” of the area.

Rabbi Chaim Druckman during a press conference in Jerusalem on March 22, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“We left our well-equipped and warm homes behind and came here to hold on to the land and protect it,” he said.

“We are confident that the current right-wing government will look after this strategic point, and in contrast to its predecessor, will assist and support the hill and not, God forbid, carry out a raid, destroying and evacuating us,” he said, referencing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline, right-wing government.

A spokesperson for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories told The Times of Israel that the matter was being investigated.

However, by Friday afternoon a large military force had gathered outside the site indicating it would likely be evacuated.

The establishment of the settlement is a potential test for the coalition which has committed to entrenching Israel’s control over the territory.

Coalition deals between the Likud and its religious and far-right allies include a vague promise to annex the West Bank to Israel, a pledge to legalize dozens of unauthorized settlements, and the provision of large funds for road building and public transport in the West Bank.

It also gives Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich the position of minister within the defense ministry with responsibility for certain civilian issues in the West Bank.

MK Limor Son Har-Melech of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, which is part of the coalition, arrived at the site, calling on Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Likud not to go ahead with the eviction.

“I’m calling from here to Defense Minister Gallant to stop the cycle of evictions and destruction and to leave these pioneering settlers in place,” she said.

Later, party leader and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir also called on Gallant to halt the evacuation.

“It’s not right that when Arabs build [illegally] in Judea and Samaria, the Civil Administration does not uphold the law, but when it’s Jews they come within hours to destroy the outpost,” he said.

Significantly, there was no comment from Smotrich.

In a possible sign of moderation on settlement issues, Netanyahu on Thursday reportedly ordered the shelving of a proposal to formally split the Tel Zion neighborhood away from the central West Bank’s Kochav Yaakov settlement, which was slated to be approved by the cabinet on Sunday.

The plan had been pushed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to better serve residents of Haredi settlements but was blocked by Netanyahu, ostensibly due to concerns over the optics of the effective creation of a new settlement days after hosting a senior official from US President Joe Biden’s administration that opposes settlement expansion.

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.

Jacob Magid and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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