PM said to have nixed IDF request to clear hilltop youth from outpost 5 times

Former Central Command head says politicians pandering to base in Yitzhar and surrounding outposts, which have been at center of recent violence against IDF and Palestinians

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

Masked Israeli settlers from Yitzhar and soldiers watch after Palestinian fields were set on fire in the village of Asira al-Qiblyia on June 2, 2010. (Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)
Masked Israeli settlers from Yitzhar and soldiers watch after Palestinian fields were set on fire in the village of Asira al-Qiblyia on June 2, 2010. (Wagdi Ashtiyeh/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government ignored recommendations received five times over the past year from the Israel Defense Forces to demolish a caravan belonging to some of the most extremist young settlers in an illegal outpost near the flashpoint Yitzhar settlement, Haaretz reported Thursday.

The army made the recommendations while in contact with the leadership of the northern West Bank community, whose surrounding outposts have been at the center of recent instances of violence targeting security forces and Palestinians.

Without the defense minister — since last November Netanyahu has held that position — signing off on the demolition, the IDF cannot carry it out.

The mobile home known as the “singles caravan” is located in the Kumi Ori outpost, three kilometers southwest of Yitzhar, and roughly a dozen extremist teens frequently referred to as “hilltop youth” have made it their home.

Border Police officers stand guard at an outpost near the Yitzhar settlement on October 24, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

A spokesman in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on the Haaretz report.

Avi Mizrahi, who served as IDF Central Command head from 2009 to 2012, told the Kan public broadcaster on Wednesday that the army’s successive recommendations to demolish the “singles caravan” had been ignored by the government “part of its base is in [Yitzhar].”

“When you don’t handle the Yitzhar outposts from the start, because you realize you have no backing… then [the extremism] grows,” said Mizrahi, who also was assigned last year by then education minister Naftali Bennett to a Knesset committee appointed to provide educational solutions for hilltop youth who have fallen between the cracks.

A defense official speaking on the condition of anonymity told The Times of Israel that the most extremist hilltop youth do not number more than 200. A quarter of them are believed to be involved in attacks on Palestinians and their property while only a dozen have been marked as potential threats to Israeli security forces as well.

Illustrative: Residents of the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar clash with security forces during a demolition of an illegal structure on June 25, 2017. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The official said that all 200 receive some degree of backing from leadership in more hardline settlements such as Yitzhar, where residents may object to violence, but don’t do enough to rein it in.

Earlier Thursday, security forces demolished a pair of small makeshift structures in an outpost adjacent to Kumi Ori, whose largely teenage residents have been involved in a pair of clashes in the past week with IDF troops.

The Yitzhar secretariat blasted Thursday’s operation, calling it a “violent move that harms its efforts to restore calm.”

A defense official told the Kan public broadcaster in response that the Yitzhar leadership was “stoking the flames.”

Border Police read out a demolition order to residents of the illegal Shevah Ha’aretz outpost near Yitzhar on October 24, 2019. (Avraham Shapira)

The demolitions were carried out by the Civil Administration, a Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing construction in the West Bank, which has carried out a number of enforcement acts in recent weeks in the area to crack down on illegal building.

The Civil Administration operation came against the backdrop of a particularly tense several weeks in Yitzhar and the surrounding illegal outposts.

Earlier this month, one of the residents of the flashpoint Kumi Ori outpost, 21-year-old Neri Zoreg, was issued an administrative order barring him from the West Bank due to what security officials say was his involvement in violent attacks on Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. Zoreg has asserted that he does not take part in such attacks. He has decided to remain in the outpost in violation of the order and has enjoyed the backing of the broader Yitzhar leadership, which warned that issuing the order would lead to unrest.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that the settlement’s secretariat expressed its frustration with the move by cutting off contact with the IDF’s top brass.

Border Police descend on the Shevah Ha’aretz illegal outpost near Yitzhar to facilitate the demolition of a pair of structures there on October 24, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Last Wednesday, a teen resident of Kumi Ori was arrested by troops on suspicion that he tried to burn down a Palestinian-owned field. The boy’s attorney and residents of the outpost have claimed that officers used unnecessary force to detain the suspect.

Two days later, an IDF officer conducting a drill near the settlement was threatened and harassed by another area hilltop youth, who attempted to enter the vehicle of the Golani Brigade commander. Two hours later, the officer returned to the scene and arrested the suspect.

Early Sunday morning, a Golani squad patrolling through Kumi Ori came under attack by a group of 30 hilltop youths, who hurled stones at the soldiers and slashed the tires of their jeep. One soldier was lightly injured and had to be taken to the hospital for treatment.

The incident was widely condemned by politicians across the political spectrum and the settlement’s leadership vowed to bar the youths involved from continuing to reside in the surrounding outposts. It was not immediately clear, however, whether they have left.

An outpost near the Yitzhar settlement on October 24, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Settler leaders also condemned the violence, but a senior IDF official who spoke to Haaretz Tuesday on the condition of anonymity said that the West Bank mayors only speak out when the violence targets soldiers, as opposed to Palestinians, who are targeted more frequently. The official added that settler leaders have placed heavy pressure on the government to prevent law enforcement from acting with an iron fist against hilltop youth, “thereby undermining the army’s status in the territories and enabling violence against members of the security services.”

On Sunday, a Border Police battalion was ordered to take up position near Yitzhar as a deterrent against further violent activities by residents of the outposts in the area. The border guards were similarly deployed in April 2014, after a string of attacks and acts of vandalism from the Yitzhar settlement and surrounding outposts, including one case in which residents attacked an IDF encampment.

But less than 48 hours after the first clash with troops, a group of 10 settlers again threw rocks and bottles of paint at Border Police in the same area on Monday evening. One soldier was reportedly hit by a rock but did not require medical treatment, and the army dispersed the rioters using stun grenades.

By Tuesday, the IDF extended for an additional month a closed military zone order over Kumi Ori that had been declared earlier in the week, meaning only residents would be allowed to enter and exit the outpost. Border Police leaked footage to the media of young Kumi Ori residents cursing at soldiers as they handed down the order. Tensions escalated and one of the teens appears to be seen picking up a rock, at which point an officer cocks his weapon at the teens and shouts at them to disperse.

Later Tuesday evening, Kan reported that police have identified suspects in the first attack on Golani troops and may carry out arrests in the coming days.

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