An American student killed in a terror attack last month was on his way to do community service at an illegal West Bank outpost, Haaretz has found, adding to the mounting questions about what precautions are taken by study abroad programs in Israel when their participants travel to particularly dangerous areas.
An investigation by Haaretz shows that many such programs – unlike the Beit Shemesh yeshiva attended by 18-year-old Ezra Schwartz – impose restrictions, and in some case even absolute bans, on travel to the West Bank. It also reveals that Schwartz and his classmates had been sent at least twice by the yeshiva to an illegal West Bank outpost to fulfill their program’s community service requirements, and were on one such trip when they were attacked in the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements.
Rabbi Gotch Yudin, the head of Yeshivat Ashreinu, the program attended by Schwartz and the five other students wounded in the attack, declined to respond to questions about the incident.
On November 19, Schwartz, a native of Sharon, Massachusetts, and a group of his classmates, were targeted in a drive-by shooting by a Palestinian terrorist at the Gush Etzion junction, the site of numerous attacks in recent weeks. They were traveling in a van rented from a local Beit Shemesh taxi company to a park established in memory of three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered in the summer of 2014 while hitchhiking in the area. That incident was one of the triggers of the Gaza war that broke out later that summer.
As part of their community service requirements, the American yeshiva students had travelled to the memorial site at least twice to help clean and beautify it. Initial accounts of the terror attack had reported that the students were on their way to distribute food to soldiers in the area, but in the days after the incident, Yudin clarified to Haaretz that they had been on their way to the park. At the time, he said the students also visited the site before the Sukkot holiday.
Oz Vegaon, the name of the memorial site, is an illegal outpost, as Haaretz has learned, against which 18 demolition orders have been issued by the Defense Ministry. According to Dror Etkes, the founder and director of Kerem Navot, an Israeli non-profit that monitors settlement activities, it is one of three outposts set up without permission from the Civil Administration, which has jurisdiction over the West Bank soon after the bodies of the three Israeli teens were discovered. “The other two have already been dismantled, and this is the only one still around,” he said. “Of the more than 100 illegal outposts in the West Bank, this is most probably the newest.”
Several months ago, under pressure from members of the Likud party, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon agreed to push through plans to legalize the site, but according to Etkes, changing the status of an illegal outpost is a lengthy process. “In the best-case scenario, it could take a year, so there is no way that it is legal right now,” he said.
Hagit Ofran, the director of the Settlement Watch project at Peace Now, wrote in an email: “At the moment, that outpost is definitely not legal. What is certain is that even if the defense minister is pushing forward a plan to legalize it, it hasn’t yet been approved – though we might say that it’s less terrible to send people to volunteer at a site that is in the process of becoming legal.”
The Defense Ministry said in response that Ya’alon had no intention of legalizing the outpost. “To the contrary,” a spokesperson said. “The defense minister has ordered that all illegal structures in the park be demolished. Since this is state land, however, he has initiated a process for legally establishing a recreation site in the park for hikers and visitors in memory of the three boys killed.”
Yeshivat Ashreinu is one of dozens of gap year programs affiliate with Masa, a joint venture of the government of Israel and the Jewish Agency. Asked whether Masa was aware that students at one of its accredited programs were being sent to an illegal outpost to perform community service work, organization spokeswoman Sara Eisen declined to comment.
In addition to gap year programs, Masa accredits dozens of other study abroad, volunteer and internship programs in Israel, all of which receive subsidies from the government and the Jewish Agency. Jewish Agency contributions to these programs come from the Jewish Federation system overseas. Quite a few of the yeshiva programs that come under the Masa umbrella – among them Har Etzion in Alon Shvut and Birkat Moshe in Ma’aleh Adumim – are located in West Bank settlements.
Eisen, Masa's spokeswoman, said that according to the organization's security guidelines, all organized group activities require advance coordination with the special government hotline that provides up-to-date safety and security directives “including where and how travel is safe, and what safety measures need to be taken in a given area.” Asked whether the directors of Yeshivat Ashreinu had acted in accordance with these directives and whether Masa was aware that its program participants had been volunteering at an illegal outpost in the West Bank, she declined to respond.
A former senior Masa official, who asked not to be named, told Haaretz that the organization has struggled for years with the question of how stringent to make its security guidelines, preferring to allow each individual program to set its own limitations. As a general rule, he said, programs that are affiliated with the Orthodox movement enforce fewer, if any, restrictions on traveling to the West Bank.
Among the largest and best-known gap year programs sponsored by Masa is Young Judaea’s Year Course. According to Kate Nachman, the director of the program, participants in Year Course who wish to travel to the West Bank during their free time require written permission from their parents as well as the program director. The program runs organized trips to sites of Jewish interest in the West Bank, she said, but not when the security situation is tense. “We usually have a trip to Hebron each semester, but we’ve postponed the one that was planned for this semester,” she said. Since last week, she added, Year Course has been enforcing a complete ban on all travel to the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem “until further notice.”
Another large Masa-sponsored gap year program is Nativ, run by the Conservative movement. At this program as well, participants interested in traveling to the West Bank on their own require parental permission. “We don’t have any ban on travel over the Green Line,” said Nativ director Yossi Garr, “but right now it’s not even relevant because our next organized trip there is scheduled for January, and we’re not cancelling it as of yet.” Program participants are prohibited, however, from traveling to the Old City of Jerusalem and the Arab eastern part of the city since the latest round of violence erupted, he said.
Beyond, a gap year program run by BBYO (formerly B’nai B’rith Youth Organization), does not encourage travel in the territories, according to its North American director Rina Rebibo. “In our code of conduct we state that ‘Travel to areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority as well as Judea/Samaria is discouraged and at participants’ own risk,’” she said in an email. “If a participant is under 18, we require written approval from both a parent as well as the Israel program director to allow them to travel to those locations.” She added that participants have traveled in the past to Hebron as a group.
Another study abroad program affiliated with Masa, whose director asked not to be quoted by name, said the institution enforces a complete ban on travel to the territories. “Our insurance program doesn’t cover such travel,” she said, “and frankly, I was surprised to learn that other programs do allow their participants to go there.”
Birthright, which brings on average 40,000 young adults on free 10-day trips to Israel each year, operates independently of Masa. Except in rare circumstances, Birthright, as a matter of policy, avoids travel to the West Bank.
Asked whether Masa intends to change its guidelines for travel to the West Bank following the terror attack that killed Ezra Schwartz, the organization's spokeswoman declined to respond.
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