As Israel seeks West Bank expansion, controversial Homesh complex revived

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HOMESH, West Bank – As Rabbi Menachem Ben-Shachar looked at the white trailer hastily erected at the edge of a steep drop, he saw something precarious but reassuring: the return of his people to this abandoned center in the Bank the West.

The trailer serves as a pop-up religious school, the first concrete sign of a controversial move by Israel’s new right-wing government to allow Jewish settlers to return to Homesh – a remote hilltop settlement that Israel demolished 18 years ago as part of a limited group, the US – back with the support of parts of the Palestinian territories.

On a recent June morning, with Israeli soldiers standing watch in the shade of a nearby tree, about 50 students prayed and argued over Talmud points in the trailer and at tables outside. Ben-Sachar looked at him with approval.

When asked if he will move here permanently, he replied with a smile. “I was just talking to my wife about it,” he said. “We expect the government to allow Homesh to return as before.”

A few hundred yards below, from the Palestinian village of Burqa, Amead Dasoqi also sees the trailer. For him, it is an ominous sign: “After [the settlers] left in 2005, we had a few years of peace,” he said.

The drive to bring Homesh back over American objections is being led by far-right members of Israel’s new government, which has demanded an expansion of settlement activity in exchange for support for Prime Minister Benjamin’s governing coalition. Netanyahu. The revival of the abandoned city, located between the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Jenin, would increase Israel’s presence in one of the few sections of the West Bank that is not already carved up by Jewish settlements. , and the restrictions on Arab residents that come with them.

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So far, Israel has not approved any new homes in the settlement. But Dasoqi and his neighbors have glimpsed what the future might hold, including an increase in Israeli troops, moving military checkpoints and emotional violence.

Twice in the last few weeks, groups of masked people ran through the town, breaking windows and burning hay bales. Soldiers did not intervene until Palestinians rushed out of their houses to fight back, Dasoqi said, and then fired tear gas canisters into the crowd.

“Now I’m afraid to go to sleep at night,” said Dasoqi, a member of the Burqa village council, who was inspecting the damage to a sheep shed with a torch a day after the latest attack. “We know they’ll be back.”

In a statement to the Washington Post, the Israel Defense Forces said that “soldiers are present in the area to prevent violence or damage to property, and they must stop these incidents.”

Two months after Israel’s new government took office, Netanyahu transferred major powers for West Bank planning and construction enforcement to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a hardline settler who recently said in a speech that ” there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” The head of the Religious Zionist party, Smotrich has asked Israel to double the Jewish population of the West Bank, which is estimated to be around 500,000.

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In March, Israel’s parliament narrowly voted for the law that banned Israelis from entering or living in Homesh and three other empty settlements in the Northwest Bank for nearly two decades.

Western governments quickly condemned the move. American officials said he broke several agreements with Israel to curb settlement activity and, in particular, a written commitment to leave Homesh and the three other small settlements that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave to President George W. Bush. at the time.

“We are outraged by the order of the Israeli government that allows its citizens to establish a permanent presence in the Homesh complex in the Northwest Bank, which according to Israeli law was built illegally on land​​​​ Palestinian private sector,” the State Department said in a statement.

A senior Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, denied that allowing settlers to return to Homesh violated Israeli law or government agreements with Washington.

“The Jews come to Judea and they have the right to stay there,” the official said, using the biblical name for the Northwest Bank. “The Prime Minister is fully complying with the duties he has undertaken. “

Smotrich declined to comment for this story. But in a fallhe marked the change as the first step in removing the “shame” of Israeli settlers who were evicting Homesh in the first place.

The hilltop site, now a bastion of overgrown foundations and crumbling stone walls, has been a hotspot since Jewish settlers settled here in the late 1970s . Palestinian farmers from Burqa claimed ownership of much of the land​​​​​​and their title was confirmed by several Israeli Supreme Court rulings over the years.

Israel finally forced the settlers out as part of a larger policy shift in 2005, when Sharon unilaterally pulled out of the Gaza Strip and pushed through a law that demolished 21 Jewish settlements, which ‘ extermination of thousands of Israelis.

According to diplomats, Sharon agreed to include Homesh and the three small settlements in the North West Bank as a goodwill gesture.

“It was really more symbolic than anything, but we appreciated the symbolism,” recalled Elliot Abrams, Bush’s deputy national security adviser who helped broker the deal.

Sharon and Bush explained the agreement in an exchange of letters and both houses of Congress passed resolutions supporting the agreement.

Abrams said it would be a mistake for Israel to build a new settlement at the Homesh site. But he refused to criticize Israel for breaking the written agreement, saying the Obama Administration had also said the documents did not carry the legal weight of a formal treaty.

Ben-Shachar was in Homesh the day the soldiers forced his sister and other residents to pack up and leave. The site has represented an “open wound” for the settlers ever since, he said. Activists have made regular pilgrimages to the location, sometimes holding Yeshiva lessons in tents or a trailer set up on land owned by a Palestinian family.

Sometimes soldiers prevented visits, but other times they turned a blind eye, according to human rights groups that have monitored the site. Now, Ben-Shachar hopes that the change in the law, and the presence of the yeshiva on what the government called “state land,” will remove any doubt.

“We expect the government to give authority to the same type of town that was here before,” said Ben-Shachar.

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Netanyahu, for his part, has tried to assure the Biden administration that there are no plans for a formal settlement at Homesh.

“We’ve been told at the highest levels of government that they don’t intend to build anything there,” said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

For the Palestinians who live in the shadow of Homesh, that is increasingly hard to believe.

When the settlers left, “farmers could go to their land and shepherds could be safe,” said Dasoqi, the village councilor. “Now, it’s getting more dangerous. We are afraid in our own houses and there is no one to protect us.”

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