Police demolish illegal settler structures, prompting outrage from coalition members

Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, also responsible for much of West Bank settlement activity, comes under fire as memorial to teenager slain in terror attack is removed

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Police and Civil Administration official take apart an illegally construction memorial and lookout point near the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, September 4, 2023. (Courtesy)
Police and Civil Administration official take apart an illegally construction memorial and lookout point near the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, September 4, 2023. (Courtesy)

Israel Police and Civil Administration officials demolished structures near the flashpoint West Bank settlement of Yitzhar on Monday, prompting condemnation from coalition lawmakers directed at their own government.

In a rare move against settler construction, police took down a tent, a residential structure, and a lookout point set up as a memorial to Rina Shnerb, an Israeli teenager killed in a West Bank terror attack in 2019.

One local resident reportedly chained himself to the floor of the residential structure in a bid to hamper the demolition process.

According to local settlers, some 150 police and Civil Administration staff arrived at the location to carry out the work.

There were no reports of clashes or arrests.

MK Tally Gotliv attacked Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the pro-settlement Religious Zionism party who also serves as an additional minister in the Defense Ministry with authority over civilian issues in the West Bank.

Smotrich has been a key proponent of the settlers and settlement construction.

Police and Civil Administration officials take apart illegal constructions near the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, on September 4, 2023. (Courtesy)

“What excuse will you give your voters?” the firebrand lawmaker Gotliv, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, wrote.

She wondered how Smotrich would justify that the lookout point was destroyed “on your watch.”

“This is your responsibility. Stop this disgrace,” Gotliv demanded.

Far-right MK Limor Son Har-Melech accused Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of being responsible, claiming she had been calling on him for months to hold a meeting about Palestinian Authority construction in the area, without success.

Son Har-Melech, of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, meanwhile, echoed settler claims that PA residential construction is threatening to destroy an ancient altar found on Mount Ebal in the northern West Bank, which some believe is the one mentioned in the Bible as used by Joshua for sacrifices, and therefore has particular significance to Jewish history.

“In contrast, when we are talking about a Jewish site in memory of a Jew who was murdered in a shocking terror attack, then it is urgent for him to demolish it,” Son Har-Melech tweeted. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Yoav Gallant.”

Police and Civil Administration officials take apart an illegally constructed memorial and lookout point near the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, September 4, 2023. (Courtesy)

The head of the Shomron Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, vowed that the structure would be rebuilt.

“It is a scandal and a distortion like no other that during a nationalist full right-wing government, hundreds of illegal Arab houses are being built unhindered in the area around Yitzhar and what bothers the enforcement system is a small lookout built by youths in memory of a someone murdered in a terrorist attack,” Dagan said in a statement.

“There is blatant discrimination here and we will not accept it,” he said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset on August 16, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Security establishment sources told Hebrew media that the lookout point was constructed on land in Area B, which is under joint Israel and Palestinian Authority rule. The tent and residential structure, however, were were set up on private Palestinian land in Area C, which is under full Israeli control, the Ynet news outlet said.

The demolishment was only the third time that the current government under Netanyahu has removed illegal settler constructions.

In August, officials from the Civil Administration, backed by police, destroyed or evacuated five buildings in the Aira Shahar outpost near the settlement of Kochav Hashahar.

A source close to Smotrich said at the time the land on which Aira Shahar was built was definitively private Palestinian land, meaning it would have been impossible to legalize the outpost.

In January, in the first weeks of the government’s tenure, forces evacuated the Or Chaim outpost on the order of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, sparking a clash with Smotrich.

Under coalition agreements, Smotrich was later given oversight of civilian affairs in the West Bank.

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.

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