Israeli army officials were aware of plans by a group of settlers to establish an unauthorized West Bank outpost at an abandoned army position in the Jordan Valley, yet still permitted them to sleep over on the premises this past weekend.
According to sources familiar with the details, members of the Jordan Valley brigade had seen correspondences regarding the settlers’ plans to establish an outpost, which the settlers dubbed Ma’alot Eliyahu, at the site. Some of the settlers were known to be active in establishing unauthorized West Bank outposts.
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Army officials were also aware that the group had the support of the Nahala settlement movement, which has worked to set up unauthorized outposts and established the outpost of Evyatar, where settlers ultimately agreed to vacate until the ownership of the land at that site could be adjudicated.
Military sources expressed criticism of the commander of the Jordan Valley brigade, Col. Bezalel Schneid, for permitting dozens of settlers to spend a weekend at the abandoned army position. They asserted that the decision could create another volatile point of friction in the region. The army said in response that the settlers had been permitted to hike in the area and sleep there but not to establish an outpost there.
Several weeks ago, the settlers issued a statement clearly stating their intention to establish an outpost there. “We’re happy to reveal a new settlement cell in the Jordan Valley,” the statement read. “The members of the cell are organizing a ‘watch’ once a week at a new spot,” at the site, which in Arabic is known as Hamam al-Malih.
The Nahala organization issued a statement calling on members of the public to come and stay overnight at the site. “Let us go up and take possession of it,” the group announced.
Schneid permitted the settlers to come to the site to “hike,” and allowed them to conduct Torah study sessions at the abandoned position, as well as to remain there until Saturday evening. However, after clashes developed between the settlers and local Palestinians, the settlers were permitted to remain overnight Saturday. They left on Sunday morning.
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On Sunday, Nahala wrote in a Facebook post: “The Ma’alot Eliyahu cell of families kept last Sabbath on the abandoned Hamam al-Malih army base with the approval of the Israel Defense Forces and under its protection. The base is adjacent to a strategic point in the Jordan Valley and on state-owned land that is registered in the land registry.”
Sources in the defense establishment were critical of Schneid’s decisions. “There are too many incidents liable to ignite this district, which until now had been quiet,” said one of them.
A government source familiar with the details stressed: “This is the quietest district in all the districts in which the military operates. The ramifications of the brigade commander are to open another focal point of disturbances for the army, which could set the whole district alight and turn into an event that will ignite other parts of the territories. It isn’t clear how, after Evyatar, the army permitted such an irresponsible thing.”
They added that even though the settlers left of their own free will on Sunday, they are expected to return. “They haven’t given up,” said one source. “The minute the brigade commander allowed this one time, they will go up there regularly, when they feel like it, with or without permission, and the defense establishment will have to start dealing with it.”
The sources also said that the approval Schneid gave to the settlers was given orally, in apparent contravention of army regulations. The regulations stipulate that civilians seeking to enter training areas – to hike or simply to pass through – need to obtain an entry permit from the relevant military authorities, to submit to a briefing on how to access and behave in the area and to sign a document assuming responsibility. The sources said the settlers did not have such permits.
The IDF Spokesperson commented: “Two weeks ago a request was received from hikers to approve sleeping over and a hike in the Jordan Valley in a compound that had previously been a military position. The hike and the lodging were approved by the relevant officials in the Jordan Valley Brigade.”
The army added: “Last Friday, the visitors hiked and slept in the compound at night. After their vehicle was damaged during the Sabbath by disturbances that occurred nearby, they were only able to clear out of the site on Sunday morning. Let there be no doubt, the issue was a request to approve a trip, which has nothing to do with establishing an outpost in the area.”