Defying international criticism, Israel has taken a significant step towards renewing the Jewish presence in a part of the West Bank where four settlements were removed as part of its disengagement from Gaza in 2005.
In a secret operation on Sunday night, settlers moved a yeshiva religious seminary in Homesh from a site on private Palestinian land to a location a few hundred metres away inside the northern West Bank evacuated settlement, which is defined by Israel as state land.
In March, Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government lifted the ban on entering four West Bank settlements – Homesh, Sa-Nur, Ganim and Kadim – that were also evacuated when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Right-wing parties in the coalition have prioritised returning settlers to the area despite condemnation from the international community.
Caravans have replaced the tents previously used by the seminary students, in the first act of construction in Homesh in 18 years to be carried out with government authorisation and under military protection. Transferring the yeshiva to “state land” was partly designed to establish facts on the ground in advance of a pending court hearing on claims by Palestinian landowners against the seminary.
The US said it was “deeply troubled” by the Israeli government’s decision to allow settlers from Homesh to establish a permanent presence, reiterating that it saw this as a breach of the commitments made by past and current Israeli governments to Washington on this issue.
“The expansion of settlements undermines the geographic viability of a two-state solution, exacerbates tensions, and further harms trust between the parties,” a US state department statement said. “We regularly engage with Israeli officials on this issue and will continue to do so.”
The Palestinian foreign ministry described the Israeli action as part of the “creeping annexation of the West Bank with the Israeli government’s support.”
Palestinian villagers claim that the presence of settlers in Homesh prevents them reaching their fields. The Israeli NGO Yesh Din, which is providing legal representation to Palestinian landowners in the disputed area, released a statement saying that “instead of evacuating the outpost immediately, Israel is giving a reward to serious criminals.”
Yossi Dagan, who heads the settler council in the area, praised the government decision. “This is a historic moment, a step toward rectifying the terrible injustice of the expulsion from Samaria [the Biblical term for the northern West Bank]. We have been working day and night to rectify the injustice against not only those displaced, but the entire people of Israel,” he said, vowing that settlers would also return to the other three evacuated communities.
Unnamed Israeli army officials described the move as “illegal” but said they could not prevent the operation because it was approved by the political elite.
The Israeli army will now have to transfer additional troops to protect the yeshiva, and a security source warned that Homesh has become a focal point of significant friction, creating a dangerous situation. “This could set the ground on fire after weeks of declining terrorism,” the source said.
Meanwhile, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian security officer during clashes in the occupied West Bank flashpoint city of Jenin on Monday, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party said in a statement. The Israeli military said its forces had come under heavy attack while seeking the arrest of security suspects in Jenin and had returned fire.