The Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration and Border Police officers completed an order to uproot trees planted without authorization by a settler in the West Bank, amid rising anger from far-right ministers and activists who opposed the move, and despite instruction from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring the operation, which started Wednesday, to a quick end.
The tree removals led to violent confrontations between officers and settler activists — including two ultranationalist lawmakers — who flocked to the site to try to stop the removal of some 1,100 trees from the land by standing in front of bulldozers or tying themselves to the trees. Footage from the incident uploaded to social media showed Border Police officers using force to detain activists, leading to the suspension of three officers.
The incident also drew fury from Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the far-right Religious Zionism party, and has again laid bare tensions within the coalition over who has authority over the Civil Administration.
The dispute pits Smotrich, who is also a minister within the Defense Ministry, against Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Under the terms of a coalition agreement between Netanyahu’s Likud and Religious Zionism, Smotrich was given authority over the Civil Administration, which is in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, including enforcement against illegal construction.
Residents said the officers appeared in the middle of the night to complete the removal of the trees from the plot. But sources in the defense establishment told Channel 12 that the operation resumed on Wednesday evening, after the confrontations with settler activists, and the remainder of the trees were uprooted at that time.
Amit Ben Eliyahu, who claims ownership of the land, said a few trees had been left on the land after Netanyahu ordered that the operation be brought to an end.
But, she said in a statement Thursday, “to my astonishment, I woke up this morning and saw that even the few remaining trees had been uprooted by Civil Administration forces that arrived under cover of night.
“You don’t treat the land like that. What was done here is destruction just for the sake of destruction,” said Ben Eliyahu.
The uprooted trees were removed on the basis of a Disruptive Land-Use Order of the Civil Administration against Chen Ben Eliyahu, a settler who planted the trees on a disputed plot of land near the settlement of Shiloh in the northern West Bank starting in the early 2000s.
The ownership over the land in question has never been formally established, but until 2005, it was not formally registered as private land belonging to anyone. The heirs to a Palestinian family have claimed ownership of the plot, while the Ben Eliyahu family claims it bought the land legitimately in 2002.
The Civil Administration sought to remove the trees planted by Ben Eliyahu after he began working the land, claiming he had no right to use non-state land — land that is neither owned by the state nor with clear private ownership. In 2021, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Defense Ministry body’s order for the removal of the trees was valid and could be executed.
Smotrich had denounced the initial operation as “an injustice that screams out to Heaven” and demanded Netanyahu transfer authority over the Civil Administration to him immediately in accordance with coalition agreements, which he averred were “the basis for the existence of the coalition.”
He accused Netanyahu of “unacceptable foot-dragging” over the issue, and said his Religious Zionism party would be holding an “emergency” faction meeting on Wednesday to discuss its next steps. Later, the Walla news outlet reported that Netanyahu contacted Smotrich on Wednesday and reassured him that the agreement would be honored and his powers would be granted “as soon as possible.”
As the initial operation was underway Wednesday, Smotrich fired off a letter to Netanyahu, accusing Gallant of undermining his authority and demanding that the premier halt the operation immediately.
As the operation to uproot the trees unfolded, the right-wing Honenu legal advocacy organization posted video footage on social media showing settler activists resisting arrest and Border Police acting violently against them, including one Border Police officer who kicked an activist in the head as he was being wrestled to the ground by other officers, and another policeman repeatedly punching the same activist once on the ground.
Head of the Border Police Amir Cohen said the incident would be investigated, following the suspension of the three officers involved.
Following the incident, MK Limor Son Har-Melech of far-right party Otzma Yehudit claimed in an interview with Kan Radio that she was sexually assaulted by one of the Border Police officers who surrounded her during a confrontation over the trees’ removal.
In response to Son Har-Melech’s allegations, police said in a statement: “The Border Police commander was updated throughout the incident, and it is important to emphasize that in addition to the immunity and freedom of movement the MK enjoys, the forces acted with great sensitivity and determination while leading respectful dialogue and exhibiting professional conduct during the incident.”
Smotrich later castigated the behavior of the Border Police over the incident, saying that the “brutal police violence” against the settler activists and the “harm to MK Son Har-Melech and the violation to her parliamentary immunity is unacceptable.”
Otzma Yehudit’s leader, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, also weighed in on the operation. He issued a statement to the press saying he had demanded on Tuesday night that Gallant call off the operation, which the defense minister refused.
Like Smotrich, Ben Gvir called on Netanyahu to halt the uprooting of the trees and accused him of violating the coalition agreements on which the government was established. He demanded that the West Bank division of the Border Police be transferred to his control as national security minister at the next cabinet meeting.
The far-right leader also gave strong backing to his party’s lawmaker Son Har-Melech for trying to prevent security personnel from uprooting the trees, saying the Civil Administration and Border Police officials had violated her parliamentary immunity.