Dozens of Israelis converged on the evacuated West Bank outpost of Evyatar Sunday night, vowing to resettle the West Bank hilltop in response to a deadly terror attack on Israeli motorists traversing a nearby Palestinian city earlier in the day.
Border Police officers were reportedly scrambled to the illegal outpost shortly after settlers began to arrive at the site, though it was not immediately clear if they were being removed.
The outpost has been vacant since 2021, when residents agreed to leave as part of a deal with the government to not raze their homes while the state carried out a survey to determine what parts of the hilltop can be built on and what areas are under private Palestinian ownership.
The move to retake the hilltop occurred as other settlers rampaged in and around the nearby town of Huwara, setting fire to dozens of homes and cars. One Palestinian man was shot dead during the rioting, the Palestinian health ministry said, and 20 more were injured, some seriously. Eight people were arrested by Israeli forces.
Both the outpost resettlement and mob violence were sparked by a shooting attack on a road through Huwara in which a Palestinian gunman opened fire on a car carrying Israeli brothers Hallel and Yagel Yaniv, killing them both.
Settlers arrived at Evyatar after dark, calling on compatriots to join them in overtaking the hilltop. Dozens of men packed a building that had been slated to be used as a yeshiva, singing dirges and celebrating their return to the former outpost, as others milled around while arguing with police attempting to remove them.
— ינון מגל (@YinonMagal) February 26, 2023
A road to the hilltop settlement is normally blocked by Israel Defense Forces soldiers manning a guard booth, but settlers said they were able to ascend the hill without scuffling with troops, the Ynet news site reported.
The Nachala organization, which lobbies for and coordinates settler campaigns, said former residents of Evyatar had waited a year and a half since agreeing to leave for the government to allow them back.
“After the tough news in Samaria today, we could not continue business as usual and what needed to happen was returning to Evyatar,” a former resident said in a statement distributed by Nachala. “We’ve returned to Evyatar just as every coalition party promised us.”
Videos showed Border Police Officers trying to maneuver between masses of settlers and in some cases trying to direct people away, but it was unclear if police were actually clearing out the former outpost. A Border Police spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
אביתר עכשיו -אחרי רצח של שני אחים יהודיים בגלל שהם יהודיים pic.twitter.com/QwTuAtWlpD
— Shoula Romano-Horing???????????????????????? (@RomanoHoring) February 26, 2023
Critics have expressed fears in recent months that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right, pro-settlement government will embolden settlers to grab land and attack or intimidate Palestinians without fear of repercussions.
Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the far-right Religious Zionism party. has tried to use his role as a minister within the Defense Ministry to stop the Civil Administration from carrying out settler evacuation orders, though he has run into opposition from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.
His political partner Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party, holds the national security portfolio, which gives him control over the police and has demanded he be handed control of the Border Police, which generally operates under the military.
In a tweet late Sunday, Smotrich called on settlers to not take matters into their own hands, promising that “we are working hard on a real response to terror, both militarily and settlement-wise.”
Settlements Minister Orit Strock said she was “encouraged by the return to Evyatar,” Ynet reported.
Under the terms of the agreement reached over the fate of the outpost in 2021, settlers left the outpost peacefully and the area became a closed military zone, with the houses and roads remaining in place and a detachment of soldiers moving in.
As part of the deal, reached under the previous government, a survey was carried out that reportedly determined that part of the land was not owned by Palestinians, but there has since been no formal announcement that the outpost can be regulated and settlers can move back.
Earlier Sunday, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said Israel would “authorize nine outposts and will approve 9,500 new housing units in Judea and Samaria,” in the coming months. The statement was in response to a joint communiqué issued after a meeting of senior officials from Jordan, Egypt, the US, Palestinian Authority and Israel said Jerusalem had agreed to freeze new settlement projects.
The outpost was named for Evyatar Borovsky, who was murdered in a stabbing attack at Tapuah Junction by a Palestinian in 2013. Several dozen settler families moved to the site in response, which has had previous incarnations as outposts that were razed by Israeli authorities, and established the yeshiva.
Palestinians in nearby villages say the outpost was built on their land and fear it will grow and merge with larger settlements nearby. Before the settlers left in 2021, Palestinians held near-daily protests that led to violent clashes with Israeli troops.