Senior Israeli defense officials were taken by surprise on Monday by the reports of a compromise agreement with the government to evacuate the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar that would leave the settlers' houses in place and require the army to set up a base on the site.
According to these sources, the agreement is contrary to the position of the army’s Central Command and intelligence officials, who believe the illegal outpost must be razed immediately to prevent an escalation in the West Bank. “This outpost must be evacuated, and it must be evacuated as soon as possible,” one of the officials told Haaretz.
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On Sunday afternoon, senior defense officials, among them Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, had convened to approve plans to evacuate the outpost in the coming days. As they left the meeting, however, they were surprised to learn from journalists that Defense Minister Benny Gantz was working out a compromise with the settlers.
On Monday, the settler leaders announced that they had accepted a proposal under which Evyatar residents would leave the outpost by the end of the week while the government examined that status of the land on which it’s built. The terms have not yet been relayed to the defense establishment, and the Israel Defense Forces and the police remain prepared to evacuate the outpost. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Yamina lawmakers on Monday that “the compromise wasn’t yet final.”
Last week, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, chief of the Central Command, rejected the settler opposition to his order to evacuate the outpost, which went into effect Sunday night. Yadai said the settlers had “blatantly and severely violated the law” and that construction on the site after an order was issued prohibiting it “is contributing to the disruption of public order and the rule of law in the area.”
The deputy attorney general in the Judea and Samaria region, Lt. Col. Lahat Shemesh, added that the outpost risked destabilizing the West Bank and had already led to “dozens of major disturbances.”
Senior defense officials said they still preferred reaching an agreement with settlers over evacuating the outpost, for fear a forced evacuation would end in violence, but they do not accept a plan that includes opening a hesder yeshiva at the site, which would entail several families living there.
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“From the first, the defense establishment’s position has been that the outpost should be evacuated immediately, and this position hasn’t changed,” a senior defense official said. “The decision to reach agreements with Evyatar residents was made over the heads of the security echelon.”
Another senior official added: “This business is completely illegal and isn’t good for Israel from any angle, especially the security one, given the situation on the ground right now.” He said the establishment of the outpost last month had been facilitated by “exploiting a time when the defense establishment was in the midst of Operation Guardians of the Walls.”
Security officials warn that any plan that leaves the outpost in place threatens to escalate tensions in the West Bank. “Evyatar isn’t just about Israel and [domestic] political considerations, it’s a complex Palestinian issue,” a security source said at a closed meeting on the issue. Another source noted at the meeting that Hamas was leading a campaign against Evyatar and “using it to humiliate the Palestinian Authority, which is in a very difficult situation in the West Bank.”
Reports of Gantz’s involvement in formulating the compromise surprised senior security officials, since as recently as Sunday night he had declared that “the place is fated to be evacuated, and the issue will be dealt with in the most sensitive and determined fashion.” Gantz acknowledged that the outpost had been established illegally but added that he was nevertheless “trying to reach an agreed-upon evacuation.”
In response to security officials’ claims that they were surprised by the plan, sources close to Gantz said the defense establishment had been well aware of the evolving agreement. Gantz’s office did not provide an official response to the claims.