Next coalition crisis? Ahead of High Court debate, Gantz says Homesh to be evacuated

Defense minister says by law, settlers must leave illegal West Bank outpost; issue is point of contention in coalition, but MK says all its members understand Gantz won’t defy law

People walk by the water tower on the ruins of Homesh, on August 27, 2019. (Hillel Meir/Flash90)
People walk by the water tower on the ruins of Homesh, on August 27, 2019. (Hillel Meir/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Monday that the illegal West Bank of Homesh will be evacuated in line with Israeli law, an issue set to be a new point of contention within the diverse and wobbling coalition.

“Homesh will be evacuated,” Gantz said at the start of a meeting of his Blue and White faction in Knesset. “Israeli law requires it.”

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 yeshiva 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.

Homesh returned to the headlines last December when one of the seminary’s students, Yehuda Dimentman, was killed in a terror shooting while on the way home from his studies at the yeshiva.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz leads a meeting of his Blue and White faction at the Knesset on May 9, 2022 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Following December’s attack, Dimentman’s widow Ettya sent a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett urging that the illegal outpost not be demolished, but rather made legal and permitted to flourish.

Gantz’s remarks on Monday came ahead of a High Court hearing regarding the outpost.

The court ordered the state to submit its position by Thursday regarding a petition filed by Palestinian landowners demanding that Israeli law be enforced and that the settlers be evicted.

In February, the state said that while it is allowing the yeshiva to keep running, it will prevent any new construction on the hilltop, with the final decision on whether to evict the settlers in Gantz’s hands.

The Palestinian village of Burqa is seen as an Israeli flag is placed in the Jewish West Bank outpost of Homesh, January 17, 2022. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Fellow Blue and White MK Eitan Ginzburg told Army Radio on Tuesday that all members of the coalition understand that Gantz cannot allow the settlers to remain if it is against the law.

“Homesh will be evacuated — [the settlers] cannot be there according to the disengagement law. All members of the coalition understand this — I do not think anyone expects the Defense Minister Benny Gantz to break the law,” Ginzburg said.

Yesh Atid lawmaker Yoel Razvozov was less direct on the issue, also telling Army Radio that the coalition has proved itself capable of resolving issues through dialogue and that the matter will be discussed “until the white smoke comes out,” referring to the Vatican’s mechanism for announcing that a decision has been made on a new pope.

Two coalition officials told The Times of Israel last month that much of what brought Yamina MK Idit Silman to leave the coalition was the growing frustration within the party over Gantz’s unwillingness to budge on settlement issues.

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

Yamina MK Nir Orbach attends a Knesset committee meeting on September 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday, Silman, along with rebel Yamina MK Amichai Chikli — who was ousted from the party — and  ex-lawmaker Yomtob Kalfon who lost his seat in the Knesset last week, took part in a tour of Homesh.

Kalfon, who has promised that he had no intention of deserting his party or the coalition when he was removed, tweeted that it is “important to strengthen Homesh and the settlements in northern Samaria.”

Opposition MK Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party tweeted that “this left-wing government has lost its majority among the nation and in the Knesset and it has no legitimacy to limit settlement steps in the area, and certainly not to evacuate Homesh.”

Homesh joins an ongoing issue over the possible retroactive authorizing of Evyatar, another illegal West Bank outpost, and the two matters could potentially be linked together to appease right-wing lawmakers.

Dozens of squatters agreed to leave the northern West Bank hilltop community of Evyatar as part of an agreement with the government last July, which saw 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 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.

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

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 Evyatar 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 moved on the site, adding bureaucratic complications to the razing.

The outpost’s re-establishment had 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 Bennett that legalizing the Evyatar 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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