A radical settlement group has launched an unprecedented effort to establish several illegal outposts at the same time in the West Bank, and has enlisted its followers to participate in the operation set to take place next week.
And while the group, called the Nachala Settlement Movement, is busy mobilizing its activists, the left-wing Peace Now organization is rallying its own followers to confront and stop the settlers.
The volatile project, which has already led to severe violence, has received significant backing from right-wing and religious public figures, including MKs, former ministers, rabbis, and settlement mayors who speak about the importance of such efforts in ideological and religious terms.
This public support for what is seen by others as an illegal enterprise that runs roughshod over the rule of law demonstrates how divided Israeli society is becoming over the issue of settlement in the West Bank.
The Nachala Settlement Movement group has been working on what it has dubbed Operation Tower and Stockade since April. It plans to establish three new outposts at undisclosed locations in the West Bank on Wednesday.
New settlements in the West Bank can only be legally established via a cabinet resolution, and with the authorization of the defense minister. Unauthorized settlements or outposts established outside of this framework are illegal.
Nevertheless, Nachala says it has hundreds or thousands of activists who are preparing to participate in its effort to create the new outposts.
The ideology behind the outpost operation
In comments earlier this week, Nachala director Tzvi Elimelech Sharbaf laid out the goal of the project in simple terms.
“We are making a clear demand. Say ‘no’ to Arabs taking control of open spaces [in Area C of the West Bank], and say ‘yes’ to Jews taking control of all these open spaces,” Sharbaf said in a promoted-content video on the right-wing Israel National News news website.
Area C refers to the parts of the West Bank where Israel maintains full civilian and security control. Roughly 330,000 Palestinians and 450,000 Israeli settlers live in the 60 percent of the West Bank that makes up Area C.
Ayelet Shlissel, a spokeswoman for Nachala, said the settlement initiative had Biblical roots and was meant to keep land out of Palestinian control.
“We [the Jewish people] were promised the Land of Israel in the Bible. The Land of Israel was promised to Abraham our forefather,” she said.
“If we don’t establish settlements then the Arabs will take this land. The Arabs are taking over the land in Area C so our goal is to demand that new settlements are built there,” she said.
Settlement activist groups and right-wing politicians have in recent years increasingly protested illegal Palestinian construction in Area C.
Construction permits are only rarely issued for Palestinian housing projects in Area C, according to the UN.
The European Union provides several million euros a year for Palestinian development in Area C, which the settler activist groups argue often violates Israeli law.
“No other country in the world would allow its land to be seized in this way,” Schlissel said.
The plan of action
She explained that the strategy behind the operation is for the activists to descend en masse to the site they have been allocated, establish a presence there, and declare the place to be a new settlement.
Nachala has arranged its activists into 28 “core groups” each comprising approximately five to 10 families along with larger numbers of youths, likely high school pupils or young yeshiva students.
Each core group will eventually seek to establish its own settlement outpost, although only three will set out to do so next week.
Schlissel said she was unsure whether temporary structures would be erected at these sites, although Nachala activists staged a demonstration of how to construct such buildings in the center of Tel Aviv earlier this week.
“If the public comes in its masses I’m sure it will succeed,” she said, although she acknowledged the likelihood that the police and army would likely seek to remove them in short order.
“If we come back the week after and then in two weeks’ time, I am sure something will change. This is how it has always worked with the settlements in Judea and Samaria. The determination of the public in saying we won’t abandon the land to the enemy works,” she said.
Asked whether or not she believed Nachala activists would be breaking the law, Schlissel asserted that there were different definitions of what is legal or illegal, and added that the group did not intend to establish outposts on private Palestinian land, which has been prohibited since a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in 1979.
A fatal scouting mission
In preparation for the upcoming operation, Nachala activists conducted several scouting missions at the end of June to identify suitable sites for new settlements, and the organization posted pictures of these trips on its social media platforms.
It appears that one such scouting mission ended in the death of a Palestinian man, when a group of activists apparently seeking a suitable site for a new outpost close to the settlement of Ariel was confronted by Palestinians from the nearby town of Iskaka.
Violence broke out and, in disputed circumstances, a member of the settler activist group stabbed one of the Palestinian protestors, Ali Hassan Harb, in the chest. Harb, 27, died from his wounds.
Video footage from just prior to the incident shows at least one of the settler activists holding a digging implement, ostensibly to prepare the ground for the establishment of an outpost.
Adi Keidar, a lawyer for the main suspect in the stabbing, whose name is under gag order, confirmed to The Times of Israel that the assailant had been participating in a scouting mission for Nachala.
Schlissel insisted however that the group of settlers involved in the confrontation were not from Nachala and were merely on a hike.
On June 22, the day of the fatal stabbing, Nachala posted on its Twitter profile that its activists had started a day of scouting tours at the settlement of Peduel, a 30-minute drive from Iskaka. The tweet indicated however that the group traveled south after leaving Peduel, away from Iskaka.
In another tweet the next day, the organization said its activists had gone to examine a possible site close to the outpost of Pnei Kedem, northeast of Hebron.
And last week, the organization said on Facebook that its activists had toured a site known as Maalot Halhul, an old army base where Nachala twice sought to establish an outpost in July and December of 2020.
A record of establishing unauthorized outposts
The organization has made several attempts to create new outposts in the past, most notably when it established the Evyatar outpost south of Nablus in May 2021.
The site of another old IDF base, Evyatar was voluntarily evacuated by the Nachala activists in July of that year after the group came to an agreement with the government that the structures at the site would not be destroyed until a review of the land ownership at Evyatar was completed.
Schlissel favorably cited what happened at Evyatar as a model for the kind of activism her organization plans for this coming week, noting that “the flag of Israel now flies from Evyatar and IDF soldiers stand guard there.”
Shortly after the evacuation of Evyatar, Nachala sought to establish another outpost called Aliot Eliyahu east of the Palestinian city of Tubas in July 2021.
In preparation for its latest operation, Nachala has publicized its intentions far and wide, including in promoted content on right-wing news outlets such as Israel National News, and numerous posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
It has used the platforms to invite potential participants to join the project, advertise online preparatory seminars and draw attention to its crowdfunding campaign for the initiative.
According to Nachala, it has raised nearly NIS 3 million ($856,000) in funding so far from some 5,000 donors, and drew over 500 participants to a video conference earlier this week.
The organization has prepared 3,000 kits for the activists that include portable phone chargers, solar-powered lights, shade canopies, ground mats, 20-liter jugs for water, portable latrines and products for personal hygiene.
The kits will be distributed to all participating activists ahead of Wednesday.
Public support for the enterprise
Operation Tower and Stockade has received public backing from Knesset members and settlement mayors.
On Thursday, leader of the Religious Zionism party and former transportation minister MK Bezalel Smotrich endorsed the enterprise and called on the public to donate to Nachala’s fundraising campaign.
“Anyone who can open their heart and their pocket should be part of this mitzva (religious obligation) of settling the land in the most beautiful way,” said Smotrich, a former member of the security cabinet, in a video statement posted to Nachala’s Facebook page.
Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Rabbi Aryeh Stern gave the project his blessing at a conference on Wednesday night, while head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan and mayor of the Beit El settlement Shai Alon have also endorsed the project.
And popular religious musician Aharon Razel has produced a new song for the project called “A good spot.”
Opposition to the operation
All of this preparation has not gone unnoticed.
The Peace Now organization, which strongly opposes the settlement movement, has sought to draw attention to what it calls the “criminal operation” being planned by Nachala.
On Wednesday Peace Now sent a letter to Prime Minister Yair Lapid calling on him to instruct Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev to thwart the planned operation and to prosecute those planning it for lobbying citizens to carry out illegal activity.
Peace Now also said it has formed its own activist unit numbering several dozen volunteers who will go out to the West Bank and seek to physically stop the Nachala activists from creating the new outposts.
Alec Yefremov, head of public activities for Peace Now, acknowledged that such action could lead to violent confrontations between the two sides but said that his organization was taking action in light of what he said was the failure of the state to prevent the establishment of other outposts.
“On July 20 a very dangerous gang is going to carry out a terror attack against the interests of the State of Israel and the rule of law, and will create outposts which will serve as greenhouses for stealing land and for Jewish terrorists,” said Yefremov.
He said the Peace Now activists “are people who love the state and are coming to stop those who are acting against the interests of the state.”
Dror Etkes, a long-time anti-settlement activist, said he believed the effort to establish multiple outposts at once was unprecedented.
He also said that he could not recall a situation in which an organization had so publicly declared in advance that it would be breaking the law.
“The old model was that settlers would secretly go out and make an outpost and then try and cope with the state’s reaction,” said Etkes.
“But we are living in different times now in which people don’t care that the law is being broken. It shows that there are growing sectors in this country that think the law is only a recommendation.”
The police and the IDF both declined to respond to requests for comment as to how they will deal with Nachala’s operation or contend with possible conflict between the settler activists and those of Peace Now.