Israeli settlers vacated the illegal Evyatar outpost on Friday afternoon, abiding by an unprecedented agreement struck with the government that will allow for the wildcat hilltop town to remain intact and under permanent supervision of the IDF, despite its unauthorized construction two months ago.
Before leaving, the dozens of families living there erected a 13-meter-high iron Star of David facing the nearby Palestinian village of Beita with the phrase “We will return” inscribed next to it.
“We’re already thinking about the next step. In stage two, we will establish a proper community. We are leaving today in a very organized fashion in order to easily unload everything back here as soon as possible,” resident Hadar Bar-Chai told the Kipa news site.
“We moved to Evyatar from the north and every moment here was lovely. This was a significant step for the people of Israel. We gained so much from every day here and it gives us the strength to return one day,” she added.
According to the agreement signed with the government on Wednesday, the settlers were to evacuate the outpost by 4 p.m. Friday. Evyatar’s dozens of makeshift homes will remain intact and the IDF will turn the site into a military outpost.
In the meantime, the government has pledged to carry out a survey of the land in order to determine its status. While the Palestinians in the neighboring villages of Beita, Kablan and Yitma say the land historically belonged to them, they have been barred access for decades over what the IDF says are security reasons.
The land went uncultivated, opening it up for confiscation by the state for public use, based on West Bank property laws. Until now, no survey has been completed by Israel to make that determination and the Evyatar settlers chose not to wait for that step before moving in.
פינוי אביתר: התושבים האחרונים עוזבים כעת, המאחז ריק כמעט לחלוטין pic.twitter.com/q5d9pazNsE
— Carmel Dangor כרמל דנגור (@carmeldangor) July 2, 2021
Such land surveys can take months, if not years, and given the defense establishment’s opposition to the outpost and the agreement that allowed it to remain intact, some settler leaders fear the Defense Ministry will drag its feet with that clause of the agreement.
If the land is determined to belong to the state, the government agreed in the deal with the settlers to immediately establish a yeshiva there and subsequently allow permanent civilian presence on the hilltop.
If it is found that it belongs to the state, civilians will be allowed to populate the area.
A senior defense official briefing reporters Friday explained that the security establishment’s opposition to the agreement stems from the concern that it will create a precedent that will be used by settlers to construct additional illegal outposts in the future.
As a result, motivation in the security establishment has increased to act swiftly to demolish outposts immediately after they are erected, in order to prevent momentum from building that requires the involvement of the political echelon.
Evyatar was a hot potato placed in the new government’s lap by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who implored the IDF not to evacuate the outpost during his final days in office, knowing that the matter would divide the politically diverse coalition that replaced him on June 13.
The agreement struck this week could be seen as a small victory for new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — a former director of the Yesha Council settler lobby — who was intent on avoiding scenes of Israeli troops pulling Jews from their homes during his first month in office.
The main opponent to the outpost in the government was Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who called for its razing days after it was established. As a compromise was being negotiated in recent weeks, Gantz fought to ensure that a yeshiva would not be established until a survey of the land was completed, according to a source familiar with the matter.
While Foreign Minister Yair Lapid from the centrist Yesh Atid party and the left-leaning Meretz and Labor factions also backed the outpost’s demolition, they were uninvolved in negotiations with the settlers, resigned to the belief that the matter was not worth the risk of toppling the government so early on, the source explained.
The agreement has also faced criticism from the far-right. A senior official in the Religious Zionism party told The Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Yisrael that the compromise was a ploy by the new government to remove the settlers and that it has no intention to move forward with the land survey.
“I think a forcible eviction would have been better. At least it would have had a positive impact on the settlement movement,” the Religious Zionism official argued. “After forcible evictions, the settlers are always compensated with a new town or neighborhood.”
Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan told Zman Yisrael that such scenes of forcible eviction were exactly the ones he was trying to avoid.
“We should not have to leave. It hurts on many levels, but this was the best compromise available. I wanted to prevent the sights from Gush Katif and Amona,” he said, in reference to settlements in Gaza and the West Bank evacuated during the 2005 Disengagement and in 2017, respectively.
While the Defense Ministry indeed wanted to move forward with the clearing of the outpost shortly after it was established, the settlers benefited from attention being elsewhere given the 11-day war in Gaza during the month of May, followed by the mass deployment of Border Police to Jerusalem to secure the flag march of ultra-nationalists through the Old City.
Dagan was confident that the decision to leave the outpost would “pay off in the long run” and that a permanent settlement would eventually be established at the site with the government’s approval.
Sources in Religious Zionism claim that the government deceived Dagan: The evacuation will take place today, but the survey will take several years, with various high court discussions, while left-wing elements in the government will torpedo any attempt to fulfill the agreement.
Evyatar was established a kilometer and a half from the northern West Bank’s Tapuah Junction days after a shooting attack there that left one yeshiva student dead and two others wounded. The Nahala movement headed by former Kedumim settlement mayor Daniella Weiss spearheaded its construction in coordination with Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan.
Earlier iterations of Evyatar have been razed several times since Israelis settled the site in 2013.
The site has been a point of friction, with sometimes deadly clashes breaking out with Palestinians protesting its establishment on a near-daily basis. Hundreds gathered near the site on Friday afternoon as it was being evacuated and hurled rocks and other objects at soldiers. Five demonstrators were injured by rubber bullets fired by IDF soldiers in response, according to Palestinian media.
The outpost is likely to remain a flashpoint, given the IDF’s intention to maintain a permanent presence there.
The US State Department on Wednesday condemned the outpost’s establishment, noting that it is deemed “illegal even under Israeli law.”
“We believe it is critical to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance equal measures of freedom, security and prosperity and a negotiated two-state solution,” a State Department spokesperson told The Times of Israel in response to a query on the matter.
The international community regards all Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal but Israeli law differentiates between settlements permitted by the Defense Ministry and outposts established without permission, often by ideologically motivated youths. Many settlements started life as illegal outposts and only gained retroactive government approval after reaching a critical mass of residents.