Right-wing MKs submit bill to lift ban on civilian presence at razed settlements

Move by incoming coalition lawmakers framed as first step toward rebuilding 4 northern West Bank towns evacuated during 2005 Gaza Disengagement; ban has never been fully enforced

Illustrative: Visitors walk by the water tower on the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Homesh on August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)
Illustrative: Visitors walk by the water tower on the ruins of the evacuated settlement of Homesh on August 27, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Lawmakers from the incoming right-wing coalition submitted legislation on Tuesday that aims to remove the ban on Israeli civilian presence on the northern West Bank land where four settlements once existed before they were razed as part of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza.

Pro-settlement lawmakers have long sought to repeal the existing law, with the hope of one day resettling the four towns that then-prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed to evacuate, along with 21 others in the Gaza Strip, in what was seen as a step to limit Israeli occupancy deep in disputed territory.

In the past, then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked legislation to lift the ban, citing international pressure against resettling areas that the Palestinians view as essential for their future state.

But as Netanyahu is set to return to power in the coming days, he’ll likely have a harder time pushing back against such legislation, given the hardline makeup of the next government — one that will be the most right-wing in Israeli history. His Likud party also signed an initial coalition deal with the far-right Otzma Yehudit party in which the parties agreed to amend the Disengagement Law.

The bill submitted on Tuesday by Likud MK Yuli Edelstein and Religious Zionism MK Orit Strock — both of whom live in the West Bank — would change the name of the 2005 legislation to “Compensation Law for the Victims of the Disengagement,” keeping in place the clause on paying damages to the former residents of Homesh, Sa-nur, Ganim and Kadim while removing the clause barring Israeli civilian presence on the grounds of the four settlements.

“The amendment will reenable the residence and free movement of Israeli citizens in the territory and will later allow the uprooted settlements to be planned and rebuilt,” the bill states, recognizing that additional government decisions would need to be passed in order to formally reestablish settlements there.

Yeshivat Homesh students pictured in their study hall that lies on top of the evacuated settlement of Homesh. The makeshift building was burned down in an apparent arson attack. (Courtesy: Yeshivat Homesh)

“Not one of the objectives of the Disengagement was realized, and therefore it is proposed that part of the law be canceled so that to some extent the national and moral stain on the garment of the State of Israel will be removed,” the legislative proposal adds.

While three of the four settlements have remained largely uninhabited for the past 17 years, ultranationalist settlers have been operating a yeshiva on the grounds of Homesh for most of that period.

The makeshift buildings they have set up have been periodically removed by Israeli security forces, but the settlers have been allowed to return to Homesh on a near daily basis, despite the law banning their presence and despite the fact that the High Court of Justice ruled that it sits on private Palestinian land.

The court has ruled in favor of the IDF allowing access to the Palestinian landowners, but this has rarely been granted and the farmers have long complained of intimidation from the Homesh yeshiva students who have prevented them from approaching the area.

The current law decrees a two-year prison sentence for those caught violating the ban on civilian presence at the ruins of the northern West Bank settlements, but it has never been enforced. Periodically over the years, the IDF has even agreed to secure the area so that hundreds of settlers can hold demonstrations at one of the evacuated areas calling for repealing the Disengagement Law.

Last year, a Palestinian terrorist opened fire on a car ferrying Israeli students leaving the Homesh yeshiva, killing one of the passengers. Since the attack, rising pressure has been exerted on the government from settler leaders not to carry out the standing order to evacuate the yeshiva and even allow permanent Israeli presence there.

While outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz has long said the yeshiva is illegal and must be evacuated, he has refrained from signing off on an order to raze the several structures there.

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