Ministers sign off on construction work en route to authorizing Homesh yeshiva

Settlers begin process of moving wildcat outpost off private Palestinian land to make way for its legalization, despite Israeli assurances to Biden that it would not do so

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Construction equipment clears land for the illegal Homesh outpost on May 25, 2023. (Screen capture/YouTube)
Construction equipment clears land for the illegal Homesh outpost on May 25, 2023. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Settlers on Thursday began readying land in the northern West Bank for the transfer of the wildcat Homesh outpost, which currently sits on private Palestinian land.

The outpost is home to a makeshift yeshiva that settlers for years have sought to legalize into a government-recognized settlement — something that the Netanyahu government this week assured the Biden administration it would not do.

While most of 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 established with the state’s tacit approval, and successive governments have sought to legalize at least some of the 100-plus unrecognized communities as a result.

Legalizing the yeshiva requires moving it to an adjacent hilltop, on what Israel considers to be public land. Permits are required to carry out the construction work necessary for that transfer, though settlers did not obtain them before they began operating on Thursday.

A day earlier, settlers sought to move construction equipment onto the northern West Bank hilltop to begin the groundwork, but were blocked by IDF soldiers.

The Samaria Regional Council, which is funding the construction project, then reached out to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — who is also a junior minister in Gallant’s office in charge of settlement affairs — urging them to intervene on the settlers’ behalf, Haaretz reported.

While officials in the security establishment urged the two ministers not to comply, Gallant and Smotrich ultimately sided with the settler municipality.

Last week, IDF Central Command chief Yehuda Fox signed a military order revoking the ban on Israelis entering Homesh, one of four settlements Israel evacuated in 2005 as part of its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Even before that decision, the hilltop enjoyed a near-daily presence of Israelis, who the IDF has allowed to enter the area every morning to study at a makeshift yeshiva.

The High Court of Justice has recognized that the Homesh yeshiva sits on private Palestinian land, but the army has yet to allow Palestinian farmers to regularly return to their lands there.

The coalition supports legalizing Homesh, and it successfully passed legislation in March allowing the resettlement of the four northern West Bank settlements evacuated in 2005. The next step in that legalization process was the military order signed by Fox last week.

The US State Department called the move “inconsistent with both former Prime Minister Sharon’s written commitment to the Bush Administration in 2004 and the current Israeli government’s commitments to the Biden Administration.”

Israeli soldiers block the entrance to the illegal Homesh West Bank settlement outpost, May 28, 2022. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon sent then-US president George W. Bush a letter some 20 years ago in which the premier committed to evacuating the four northern West Bank settlements in order to make room for more Palestinian territorial contiguity in the area. In exchange, Bush would go on to offer his own written recognition of the need for land swaps in a future peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, allowing the so-called settlement blocs closer to the Green Line to remain under Israeli control.

For its part, the Netanyahu government has argued that the Obama administration was the first to dismiss the Sharon-Bush exchanges, by rejecting a notion that the US was willing to differentiate between the blocs and settlements located deep in the West Bank.

But the Sunday statement from the State Department also pointed to Israeli commitments to the current administration, which ostensibly referred to Jerusalem’s agreement at regional conferences in February and March to halt West Bank expansion — specifically a four-month moratorium on discussing new settlement units and a six-month freeze on okaying new outposts.

“Advancing Israeli settlements in the West Bank is an obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution,” the US statement added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s aides have privately told their Israeli counterparts that Jerusalem insisted that there are no plans to establish a new settlement in Homesh, according to an Israeli official who confirmed a Walla news site report on the matter.

The Netanyahu aides have sought to explain that the reason for the military order is to commence the process of moving the outpost off of Palestinian land to a different location nearby.

Such a rationale is unlikely to sway the Biden administration, which fundamentally opposes Israeli expansion in the West Bank, regardless of whether the land in question is considered public or private.

Walla said Netanyahu aides have told the Biden administration that the military order was also necessary due to political pressure the premier is facing from his far-right coalition partners — another point unlikely to move the US.

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