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Settler movement bounces back

Settler supporters take part in an anti-withdrawal rally in the summer of 2005. (Brian Hendler)

Settler supporters take part in an anti-withdrawal rally in the summer of 2005. (Brian Hendler)

HOMESH, West Bank (JTA) – Jewish settlers and their supporters by the hundreds climbed up six miles of winding road, their path lined with a mix of wildflowers and Israeli army jeeps and armored personnel carriers. They made their way to the ruins of what once was one of the most remote West Bank settlements, surrounded on all sides by Palestinian villages, to make a statement: A new and defiant spirit in the settler camp would try to reclaim what was lost when Israel unilaterally withdrew from parts of the northern West Bank in the summer of 2005. “This is symbolic, but also real … this is the Land of Israel and it is important for us to be here,” said Yakov Idels, 37, who marched to Homesh with two of his children. “We are doing what we think needs to be done.” Two recent events – the march to Homesh and the purchase of a Palestinian home in Hebron by Jews – are sending a message to the government and the mainstream settler leadership that there’s a more aggressive and proactive mood in the settler camp, especially among the younger generation. After Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank – including Homesh – in August and September 2005, the settler camp went through a period of shock and soul-searching. A year and a half later, many speak of feeling increasingly disconnected from the State of Israel and its institutions as well as the Yesha Council, the settler leadership that many in the settler camp believe did not do enough to block the disengagement plan. “They needed a demonstration to the state as well as the Yesha Council that a new game is now being played,” said Lior Yavne of Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization that monitors settler activity in the West Bank. The violent clash between settlers and police who came to evacuate the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona in February 2006 proved to be a watershed. “We learned that the people who shed blood for the country are the ones who will own it in the end,” said Erez Avrahamov, 29, from the settlement of Karnei Shomron. Some in the more strident circles of the settler movement see Israel’s withdrawal not only as a betrayal but as an event for which the country is now being punished. They cite the failures of the recent war in Lebanon, the wave of scandals plaguing the government and even former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s coma as forms of divine retribution. “Even if this is a naive thought, it should not be mocked,” Yisrael Harel, a former settler leader and prominent figure in the movement, wrote in Ha’aretz. “Only dreamers and the determined bring about a turning point at historic junctures.” Harel praised the moxy of those who marched to Homesh as following in the spirit of Gush Emunim, the founders of the settler movement, who at Passover 1975 illegally took over a train station at Sebastia – a move that launched the settlement enterprise in the West Bank. Other observers, however, had harsh words for right-wing activists who they claimed were taking advantage of a weak government to carry out their agenda.The army said initially that anyone marching to Homesh would be charged with breaking the law. In the end, a deal was worked out in which the protesters were allowed to stay for 48 hours under army guard. Similarly, Yossi Beilin, a Knesset member and leader of Israel’s left wing, derided the government’s muted response to the some 200 settlers who have moved into the house in Hebron.The local Jewish settlers say they bought the house from its owners, but a Defense Ministry ruling makes it illegal to purchase Palestinian homes in the section of Hebron under its jurisdiction without ministry authorization. “We have to raise a cry against this ticking bomb in Hebron and the squatting in this house of 200 settlers,” Beilin said. “I greatly fear that the situation there in Hebron is very, very dangerous, and is liable to blow up any minute.” Dov Lior, the rabbi of neighboring Kiryat Arba, said it was well within the rights of the Jews living there to purchase and live in the house in Hebron. “We are in an age of redemption,” Lior told JTA. “We need to settle all of Judea and Samaria. To my dismay the government did the opposite, and now our people need to reawaken and come back.”

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