Eight Years After Evacuation of West Bank Settlement, Palestinian Owners Return to Land

Homesh was one of four settlements evacuated alongside Gaza in 2005, but the area remained under Israeli military's control; years of anticipation were over on Thursday as Palestinians resumed working their long-lost plots.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Eight years after the evacuation of the settlement of Homesh and 35 years since it was founded, the original Palestinian owners are once again working their land.

The past eight years have seen attempts by Jewish extremists to reestablish Homesh, which Israel evacuated as part of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank. With the opening of the land to Palestinians once more, groups like Homesh Yeshivah, whose members are known to sleep in nearby caves, are likely to double their efforts to resettle the area.

On Thursday morning, the Palestinian Authority held a festive celebration as landowners arrived to work their land for the first time in eight years. The merry crowd climbed the abandoned orange water tower of Homesh and waved Palestinian flags from the top. They covered over a Menorah symbol on the tower and spray-painted the words: “Palestine is here for ever. The occupation will end.”

Three other settlements in the northern West Bank along with Homesh were in the Gaza disengagement led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. All of Homesh's homes were demolished. Only a water tower was left standing.

Homesh was founded in 1978 in the area known in Israel as Samaria on 700 dunams (173 acres) of the land belonging to neighboring Palestinian village of Burka, which has a land arrangement with ownership certified in the Land Registry. When the lands were confiscated from Burka, the IDF cited military necessity - a common premise, subsequently banned by Israel’s Supreme Court. In 1980, the area was handed over to Jewish settlers, who established Homesh the same year. The government also confiscated other land nearby.

Even after Homesh was evacuated in the summer of 2005, the land seizure order remained in effect and the Palestinians were prohibited from entering the area.

In 2010, the landowners and the human rights organization Yesh Din petitioned the Supreme Court to put an end to the military requisition.

But just before the case came up for a hearing in the High Court in May this year, the head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, said he would rescind the seizure order without explaining why it had taken so long to do so. The government delayed action because the previous Central Command chief, Avi Mizrahi, said the site had to be kept for military purposes. The Defense Ministry's legal advisers had said, however, that there was insufficient cause to hold all the land. In December 2011, when Alon took over IDF Central Command, he overturned Mizrahi’s decision and paved the way for the return of the land.

As of two weeks ago, Homesh is no longer listed as a settlement, ending the military requisition.

The celebrating landowners moved about happily Thursday morning. Muhammad Salim Haj, 73, owns 20 dunams (5 acres) there. He farmed the land before Homesh was established and since then he has not been to the site. He said he thought he would never return to his land. His plot is located up the hill where the concrete foundations of the settlement's houses ruined the soil. He hurried to plant an olive tree, nevertheless.

"They ruined the land, he said. “But we will try to plant olives and maybe even apples, too.”

Iman Saif broke out in tears of joy as she searched for her family's plot. "We have 23 dunams (5.75 acres) here. I don't know where exactly. Everything here has changed. We will sow and harvest and water it. I'm happy. Very happy," she said.

Khaled Mansour, a resident of the al-Fara refugee camp whose family came from Haifa, joined the festivities but took a different tone from the locals. He held up a sign with the words, “To Hell,” and an anti-Semitic depiction of a Jew with long sidelocks and a sword in front of his face. “I am helping the people of Bukra to drive out Homesh. This is a happy day. We will drive out all the settlers from our land,” Mansour said.

Since the evacuation, the "Homesh Yeshivah" has tried to keep some form of Jewish hold on the site, sleeping in nearby caves - but none of them were present on Thursday. A settler movement named Homesh First has protested at the site occasionally, but security forces remove the demonstrators. Now, after the Palestinians have returned to the lands of Homesh, the efforts by extremist Jews to restablish Homesh are expected to rise.

Palestinians from the village of Burka return to their land in the settlement of Homesh.Credit: Moti Milrod
Credit: Moti Milrod

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