Under heavy security protection, thousands of settler activists and members of right-wing organizations, together with senior government ministers, marched to the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar on Monday afternoon.
Organizers said the march was to strengthen the settlement movement and to pressure the government to allow the illegal outpost to be repopulated.
Channel 12 reported that 20,000 Israelis participated in the march, while the Kan public broadcaster put the number at 17,000.
Some of the government’s most senior cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, participated in the march against their own government’s policy, along with four of the most senior rabbis in the religious-Zionist community.
“We will not surrender to terrorism, not in Evyatar, not in Tel Aviv. If you surrender to terror you’ll surrender everywhere but we are here in order to say ‘the Jewish people are strong,’” Ben Gvir said in a video message he made from the march.
As he walked toward Evyatar among the masses, Ben Gvir was heckled by several other participants who said they are afraid to drive home on West Bank roads and blasted the minister for not doing enough to protect them despite his pre-election promises to restore security for Israelis.
— מאיר ליוש Meir Layosh (@MeirLayosh) April 10, 2023
Upon arriving at the outpost, Ben Gvir and several other coalition members addressed the crowd.
“We do not blink. We are returning home to the Land of Israel, returning home to the Temple Mount and [returning home to] Jerusalem,” said the national security minister, who has been attempting to end longheld government policy barring Jews from the Temple Mount during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Before entering the government, he also campaigned ardently to allow Jewish prayer at the flashpoint holy site in violation of the status quo under which non-Muslims can only visit and not pray.
“We legalized nine outposts, and with God’s help, we will legalize more and build more [settlement homes]. The response to terrorism is to build, settle and directly engage [those seeking to harm us] in order to bring about the death of the terrorists. Jewish blood will not be spilled in vain.”
In his speech at Evyatar, Smotrich said that the government would legalize the outpost in the near future.
“This place will be bustling with life – Jews, upright, proud, lovers of the land and of the Torah, and just like Evyatar will be formalized, so to will [other] existing settlement [outposts] and new settlements, since this is our land,” said Smotrich from the event.
Smotrich, who also serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of civilian affairs, said his office is in the midst of working to legalize over 70 more wildcat outposts in the near future.
מועצה אזורית שומרון: כ-30 אלף משתתפים כעת בצעדת אביתר. pic.twitter.com/Punwkmd7FE
— חדשות הסקופים. (@Haskupim) April 10, 2023
“With God’s help, we will bring another half a million Jews here in addition to the half million who are already here,” he declared.
Ben Gvir and Smotrich were among the seven government ministers and 20 coalition MKs who had agreed to attend the march.
The march sparked protests from dozens of Palestinians in the nearby village of Beita who have long demonstrated against the establishment of Evyatar, which sits on lands Israel expropriated decades ago from their town. Palestinians are generally barred by the army from gathering in large numbers in the West Bank.
The Palestinian protesters clashed with IDF soldiers, who used riot dispersal measures to scatter the demonstrators. Fifty-seven Palestinians were injured, according to the Red Crescent emergency service.
In one clip that sparked criticism on social media, Israeli troops were filmed throwing tear-gas canisters at Palestinian journalists covering the protest in identifiable press gear, leading several to require medical attention.
The goal of the march, according to the Nachala Settlement Movement which organized the event, is to bring pressure to bear on the government to allow Evyatar to be repopulated in accordance with the coalition agreements signed between the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party and the Likud.
בושה: חיילי צה"ל יורים רימונים על עיתונאים שמסקרים את ההפגנה בכפר ביתא נגד הצעדה למאחז אביתר. pic.twitter.com/jhJ16rQOBE
— ישראל פריי (@freyisrael1) April 10, 2023
Speaking at the event, Nachala head Tzvi Elimelech Sharbaf said, “We expect the government to immediately approve the return of the families [who re-established Evyatar in 2021] and the yeshiva to Evyatar, and to establish many new settlements in Judea and Samaria, the Negev and the Galilee.”
Smotrich arrived later in the day, having earlier vowed to legalize Evyatar in the near future.
The event comes amid a wave of Palestinian terror attacks carried out in recent days, as well as riots on the Temple Mount and inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and rocket barrages fired from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza.
On Sunday, security officials warned that the march to Evyatar would put more pressure on security forces already “spread thin” by the security situation in the West Bank, and the threats from other fronts.
Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said the military approved the march, saying it would be “highly monitored and highly protected.”
Ohad Tal, a lawmaker with the Religious Zionist party, said that “there was no reason in the world to cancel the march.”
“We need to send a message — the message that we don’t intend to concede and we are here to stay,” he told Army Radio.
However, Yesh Atid lawmaker Elazar Stern said that the march should not go ahead.
“A large number of government ministers think that the state is a kind of toy, and they play with the security of all of us,” Stern told the Ynet news site.
An unnamed security official told Channel 12 News on Sunday that since the country was currently experiencing a wave of terror attacks, “[the march] will require security forces to dedicate to it officers who are supposed to be on other missions.”
The security official said that among their other tasks, security forces were working to combat rising rates of nationalist crimes being perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians in the West Bank, for fear that such an incident may worsen the escalation.
The Walla news channel reported a separate military source as saying however that the commander of IDF Central Command Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs did not oppose the march since it had been legally authorized and was being coordinated in advance with the IDF.
According to a report in the Haaretz daily, an entire IDF battalion will be diverted from the manhunt for the perpetrators of the Jordan Valley deadly terror attack that killed British-Israeli sisters over the weekend in order to secure the settler march. Generally, the IDF does not allow large congregations of Palestinians in the West Bank, viewing them as a public disturbance.
The settler activists and public officials marched 1.7 kilometers (one mile) from Tapuach junction in the northern West Bank to Evyatar and will enter the settlement and conduct various recreational activities there during the course of the day.
An IDF battalion was assigned the task of securing the area during the march, while Border Police forces secured the marchers themselves.
Evyatar was first established in 2013 but has been destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions, until it was re-established most recently in 2021. In an agreement with the then-outgoing Netanyahu government, the settler activists in Evyatar agreed to leave the settlement pending a government review of the land and commitment to legalize the outpost and on condition that the buildings at the site were not demolished.
The Bennett-Lapid government did not move forward with the agreement, but the Religious Zionism party demanded that Evyatar be legalized as one of the conditions of its coalition agreement with Likud in the current government.
In a recent agreement with the Palestinians brokered by the US, Israel has however agreed not to advance the legalization of West Bank outposts for six months.
Among the MKs present at the beginning of the event were Likud representatives Boaz Bismuth and Ariel Kallner, as well as Religious Zionism MK Tzvi Succot.
Bismuth said he was “marching for Samaria [in order] to strengthen the settlers of the mountain region, including the Evyatar pioneers.”
The Likud MK added the “Zionist response” to terrorism was to “strengthen the hold on the homeland.”
Speaking at the head of the procession as the march set out, the chairman of the Samaria Regional Council in the West Bank Yossi Dagan called on the government to formally legalize the Evyatar outpost.
“We have come from all over the country to tell the government clearly: We sent you to govern and we expect you to govern as a right-wing government,” declared Dagan, who is a member of the Likud Central Committee.
“Our response to the wave of terrorism is clear, the building-up of the Land of Israel and the establishment of new settlements in Judea and Samaria, the Galilee and the Negev… We demand from our friends in the government to authorize the construction of a permanent settlement in Evyatar in the heart of Samaria.”
The left-wing Yesh Din organization denounced the march however as “a provocation” and “a Jewish supremacy protest” designed to antagonize the Palestinians.
“While the residents of the Palestinian territories are subject to a blockade, masses of settlers will march to raise up the banner of an ideology of expropriation and plunder,” the organization said.
“The participation of [government] ministers in the march today is more fuel for the burning fire in the occupied territories when the main victims are as usual – the Palestinians.”
Times of Israel staff and the Associated Press contributed to this report.