National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Friday prodded his government to launch a wide military offensive accompanied by an intensive settlement campaign across the West Bank, urging settlers to “run for the hilltops.”
Ben Gvir, who leads the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, made the call while visiting the illegal hilltop outpost of Eviatar, which was reoccupied earlier this week in response to a deadly terror attack.
“There needs to be a full settlement here. Not just here but on all the hilltops around us,” Ben Gvir said. “We have to settle the land of Israel and at the same time need to launch a military campaign, blow up buildings, assassinate terrorists. Not one, or two, but dozens, hundreds, or if needed, thousands.”
The minister said he had come to the wildcat outpost to bolster the groups of settlers who have been there since Tuesday night, demanding the government make good on coalition promises to legalize the site.
Though previous attempts to resettle Evyatar have been stymied by the Defense Ministry, no such order had been given as of Friday and the appearance of Ben Gvir and other coalition figures made the possibility of an imminent evacuation less likely.
“We’re going to strengthen our hold, return security to residents and most of all fulfill our great mission,” Ben Gvir said.
“The land of Israel for the Nation of Israel,” he said, employing a nativist slogan meant to promote exclusive Jewish control of the land between the Mediterranean and Jordan River.
“We are behind you,” he exhorted. “Run for the hilltops, settle them.”
עליתי הבוקר ליישוב אביתר יחד עם ראש מועצת שומרון יוסי דגן ויו"ר תנועת 'נחלה' דניאלה וויס. נסעתי בכדי לחזק את התושבים שעלו כתגובה לפיגוע הקשה בעלי בדרישה לקיים את ההסכם עליו התחייבה הממשלה להסדיר את היישוב אביתר. אני נותן להם גיבוי מלא ומוחלט, רק כך נחזיר את הביטחון חזרה. pic.twitter.com/LNRzcZ0nDt
— איתמר בן גביר (@itamarbengvir) June 23, 2023
Following the visit, clashes reportedly erupted between Israeli security forces and Palestinians from the neighboring village of Beita, who say Evyatar was built on the village’s lands.
Asked about Ben Gvir’s comments, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing Friday that Washington has been “clear and consistent that we do not support additional settlement activity. Our policy with respect to settlements has not changed and will not change,” he added. “And we have been very consistent in communicating that directly to government officials in Israel.”
The area around the outpost south of Nablus has been rocked by days of intense rioting by settlers carrying out reprisal attacks following the shooting deaths of four people Tuesday at the nearby settlement of Eli.
Hours after the attack, an unknown number of settler vigilantes rampaged through several Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank, including Huwara, the scene of another deadly settler riot earlier this year after a terror attack, burning cars and fields and stoning homes.
The next day, hundreds of settlers, many of them armed, also tore through the Palestinian towns of Turmus Ayya and Urif, setting homes, cars and fields on fire and terrorizing residents. Confrontations erupted between Israeli security forces trying to disperse the settlers and Palestinian residents who hurled stones and fireworks, killing a 27-year-old Palestinian and wounding at least a dozen others.
One Palestinian — 27-year-old Omar Qattin — was killed in unclear circumstances in Turmus Ayya. Despite surveillance footage apparently showing Jewish Israelis opening fire in the town, a defense source told The Times of Israel on Friday that Israeli security authorities were unaware of gunfire by settlers during the rioting.
On Friday, US officials and European dignitaries visited Turmus Ayya to show solidarity with residents attacked by the settlers in the deadly rampage on Wednesday.
The town has a significant population of dual Palestinian-American nationals. Many of them live abroad but pay visits to the central West Bank town during the summers, including individuals who were targeted by settlers on Wednesday.
Qattin had permanent residency status in the US and members of his family have American citizenship, two US officials told The Times of Israel.
In his briefing Friday, Kirby noted that some of the Palestinian victims of settler attacks were US citizens and that consular officials would be ready to provide assistance.
“We condemn all acts of violence. Violence isn’t helping reduce tension,” said Kirby. “Leadership is required.”
The Israeli military has condemned the attacks, stressing that the settler violence made it harder for the army to focus on its main mission — protecting Israeli civilians.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday denounced the rioting in a statement that also addressed unrelated clashes in the Golan Heights, calling on Israelis to obey the law.
His government’s official response has been to announce the impending authorization of 1,000 new homes in Eli.
It also gave the go-ahead to retroactively legalize two illegal outposts near Eli, some five kilometers (three miles) south of Evyatar. That came on top of another outpost in the area already set to be approved at a Monday meeting where authorities are expected to authorize some 5,800 homes across the West Bank.
“The Zionist answer to terrible attacks is building, building, building,” said Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, who also visited Evyatar Friday and was among those to illegally occupy the site earlier this week. “The military response is to launch an offensive campaign in cities under the terrorist Palestinian Authority, and on the civilian front, it is construction.”
The international community has stridently condemned both the moves to ramp up settlement activity and the settler violence, putting Netanyahu’s government on a collision course with the US and Europe and risking hard-won steps toward regional normalization.
US officials expressed concern to The Times of Israel this week that Ben Gvir and other hardliners were steering government policy rather than the more politically pragmatic Netanyahu.
Evyatar was originally established illegally and without authorization in 2013 after a terror attack at nearby Tapuah Junction, in which Evyatar Borovsky was killed. The outpost was subsequently demolished, but in 2021 the Nachala organization arranged for several families and activists to return to the site.
The previous Netanyahu government promised to find a solution for the Evyatar residents, in return for which they voluntarily left the outpost without the structures at the site being demolished.
The new Netanyahu government, which took office in December, pledged in its coalition agreements with the Religious Zionism party to legalize Evyatar, which is likely built on land belonging to residents of nearby Palestinian villages, though that question has not been fully settled.
The Defense Ministry, IDF, and offices of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Smotrich all did not respond to requests for comment as to whether the Evyatar activists will be removed.