Israeli Settlers Fight for 'Right of Return' to the West Bank
Twelve years after four isolated settlements were evacuated, right-wing politicians are pushing for the ban on Israelis residing there to be lifted. But it will take a lot more than a law to reestablish the abandoned settlements
The bill to reverse the 2005 uprooting of four isolated West Bank settlements was submitted to much fanfare in June at a conference organized by MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi), the driving spirit behind the law. A host of MKs and ministers attended, among them David Bitan, the coalition whip, to demonstrate support for the amendment allowing Jews “to return to northern Samaria.”
The bill’s explanation stated: “Despite the expulsion of Jewish residents, there has not been any change in the status of the land or the presence of the army. Thus, restoration of the status quo ante is called for in northern Samaria.” The bill would end the ban on Israelis residing inside the four northern West Bank settlements, each near Jenin, each having been home to no more than a few dozen families, and each now lying in ruins.
A visit to the abandoned settlements, which are illegal for Israelis to even enter, reveals that Moalem-Refaeli is right about one thing: Not much has happened here since the evacuations in 2005, which accompanied the destruction of the Gaza settlements. Nearly all the residential buildings were demolished, while the roads and parts of the public structures remain partially destroyed, looking like the set of a horror film. Sa-Nur stands out in particular. The old building in its center stands almost completely intact, dilapidated, with graffiti on the walls left by the evacuees. Most of the graffiti vow, “We’ll be back.”
And still, it is a long road from overturning the ban on Israelis entering the former settlements and a “return to northern Samaria.” The ruins in the settlements are in areas very hard for Israelis to reach, and the law forbids Israelis to travel on the road to some of them. A lot more than repealing the law will be needed to reestablish them. Despite the bill’s nickname, the “law to repeal the disengagement,” there is a great distance between what this amendment will allow, if it passes, and what its name implies.
The evacuated settlements of Kadim and Ganim, adjacent to each other, are now located inside Jenin’s municipal boundaries. Settlers, even the most extreme among them, never go there. Some were taken aback when asked for directions how to get there. You have to go through Jenin to reach Ganim and Kadim. Israelis and Palestinians both warned that such a drive is particularly dangerous for Israelis.
Abd al-Karim Saadi, an investigator for B’Tselem in the northern West Bank, said the Jenin municipality is interested in building residential neighborhoods in Kadim and Ganim, but it isn’t simple. Because the area is defined as Area C (the 60% of the West Bank nominally under Palestinian Authority control), it will need complex permits and a long bureaucratic process that will draw political criticism in Israel and be managed by the Civil Administration. Officials in the administration told Haaretz they don’t know of any such plan. The intention to develop the area for residential needs, if it exists, remains a fantasy at this stage.
Still, the area isn’t empty. Kadim and Ganim have become ad hoc sites for dumping construction debris and a constant flow of Palestinian garbage trucks. About six trucks dumping debris and garbage in the abandoned settlements were spotted over the course of an hour. The access road to Ganim is full of traffic because a large amusement park was built right next to it. Sometimes you can spot cars with couples among the ruins perhaps seeking a little privacy.
Conversations with settlers from the area indicate that even the radicals among them don’t see a real possibility of returning and resettling Israelis in Ganim and Kadim because unprecedented security arrangements will be needed. Israelis currently lack any access to these evacuated settlements. Even if the law will allow Israelis to return, this access will be dangerous. There will certainly be someone among the ideological core of settlers who will be happy to try, but their chance of reestablishing a permanent settlement at these spots is minimal.
In contrast to Ganim and Kadim, Israelis have easier access to the ruins of Homesh and Sa-Nur. Homesh is located a short distance from the settlement of Shavei Shomron. The access road to it may be blocked with tires and debris, but one can clear a path to the abandoned settlement.
Homesh was built on private Palestinian land via a seizure order, as was done in the late 1970s. The long-standing method was to seize the land seemingly for military purposes and then to build a settlement on it. The High Court of Justice banned this method in the case of Elon Moreh. Palestinians petitioned the High Court in 2011 to overturn the military seizure of Homesh’s land, which continued to be subject to the order after its evacuation. The order was lifted in 2013 and the petition withdrawn.
“It’s in Area C and the lands are private,” said attorney Shlomi Zacharia, who represented the Palestinians and the Yesh Din organization in the petition. “Today, according to the law, Palestinians can theoretically visit the area and Israelis are forbidden from being on this land.”
However, Palestinian access to Homesh is still prevented. A few dozen extremist settlers established an illegal outpost in the abandoned settlement. When a Haaretz team tried to enter the settlement, masked squatters surrounded their car, shouting and throwing a rock or two that missed, and only stopped when the team identified themselves as journalists. “We thought you were Arabs,” one of the squatters said apologetically.
They know that they are squatting against the law and therefore provided few details, although they agreed to give us a tour of the outpost. An improvised place of Torah study operates inside a kind of tent located in the center of the evacuated settlement. They say Palestinians from the area have attacked the outpost and even set fire to the Torah study tent a few months ago.
Abd al-Latif lives in Burqa, the village adjacent to Homesh, and is one of the landowners in the area. He said that although Israelis are legally barred from residing in Homesh, Palestinians can’t really walk there. “All the lands are privately owned, but we have not been able to visit them since the day they left Homesh,” he says. “The settlers started returning, and the army started protecting them.”
He added: “The High Court of Justice ruled that the lands would be returned to the owners and that no Israeli would enter. The settlers kept coming, holding discussions and studying Torah there or something. There have been many problems between the settlers and people in Burqa. The army tells us each time you can go to your lands, but there are people there who hit you.”
Attorney Zacharia puts it more plainly. “What’s happening there in fact is that there is a permanent Israeli presence there, in violation of the disengagement law,” he says. “They are preventing the Palestinians from approaching, while there is no law enforcement by the authorities and sometimes with the assistance of the authorities. They sometimes have protection.”
According to army officials, the outpost in Homesh is being evacuated in stages. The tent was dismantled, and security officials in the area say there are no permanent structures. The last time the tent was evacuated was last Saturday. Settlers in the area said the outpost was evacuated several times, but its inhabitants return from time to time. When there is an Israeli presence in the area, it brings a military presence, but it isn’t permanent.
You have to go through areas that are forbidden to Israelis to reach the fourth evacuated settlement, Sa-Nur, which is a few minutes’ drive from Homesh. However, settlers from the area say, Israelis go there occasionally. Abd al-Latif said Palestinians have no problem getting to Sa-Nur, which they visit regularly.
Sa-Nur is located a few hundred meters from the Palestinian village of Silat al-Dahar, above the village’s gas station. A visit to the area shows that the area has mainly become a picnic site for local residents. The settlement was located on a small hill above the village, and it has an impressive view. There is a destroyed mosque dating back to the British Mandate period or even earlier in the heart of the ruins. When there was a settlement on the spot, an Israeli flag was flown from the mosque’s minaret. After the evacuation, someone climbed up the minaret, took down the flag and replaced it with a Palestinian flag.
Local Palestinians visit Sa-Nur’s ruins. The remains of a barbeque and garbage left by hikers could be seen. Local Palestinians said Israelis occasionally try to return to Sa-Nur, so it is important to them to demonstrate a presence on the hill to prevent the establishment of an outpost similar to the one in Homesh. The old structure and the remains of the mosque serve as a kind of tourist attraction, keeping visitors in the area.