In One Evacuated West Bank Settlement, Victory Looks Like Defeat

The West Bank settlement of Homesh was evacuated in 2005, but when its Palestinian landowners visited this week, they discovered hilltop youth living there.

We haven’t seen Palestinians this scared and frightened in a long time. Last weekend the state informed the High Court of Justice that it was rescinding the order to seize the lands of Homesh, a settlement that was evacuated almost eight years (!) ago. We decided to drive with a few of the legal owners to their property, where they were not allowed to tread for 35 years − including the eight years since Homesh was cleared. It was a lovely spring day and we set out from their village, Burka, in the northern West Bank − whose land the settlement of Homesh overran − and headed toward Homesh.

At first the landowners hesitated to go with us. It is true that the state finally dispensed with the seizure order, oddly and exasperatingly late, and even formally informed the High Court of the fact. But who better than Palestinians know that this did not mean an end to their tribulations. Far from it. In the home of the village council head, Jihad Shreida, the landowners told us that the settlers had taken over the ruins and are still living there to this very day.

We did not believe them. After all, in 2005, following the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces declared these lands a closed military zone, off-limits to Israelis. It is true that during the intermediate days of Pesach, not long ago, thousands of Israelis celebrated here in a big rally, honored by the presence of the agriculture minister, Yair Shamir; the deputy defense minister, Danny Danon; and the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Nissan Slomiansky. But who’s counting? It is true that the right-wing movement Homesh First has already held dozens of mass rallies like that here. But who remembers?

The IDF, so we thought, is a law-abiding organization, certainly when it comes to orders it issues itself. The Palestinians thought otherwise.

For a good few minutes, the landowners consulted among themselves on whether to join us on the very brief and, from their viewpoint, dangerous drive to their private land, located north of their village, high up on the hill where residents for years made their lives a misery. The villagers explained that there were settlers in the area and they were scared. Ultimately, a few found the courage to join us.

A few hundred meters after the right turn off the main access road, onto the road that leads up to Homesh, they asked us to stop. They got out of the cars and said they’d changed their minds. Their fear had grown. Untended and neglected olive trees stood silent on the side of the ascending road. In the end, they relented and decided we would push on. We went up to the mountain.

The painted remnants of sidewalks and tangled oleander bushes attest that there was once a settlement here. Only the water tank remains standing, looking out from the heights at the neglect. It’s painted orange now; on it is the defiant slogan “Homesh first” ‏(like the name of the movement‏), with the image of a menorah alongside.

We asked the landowners to get out of the two cars we’d driven up to the mountain, to have their picture taken on their land, but they adamantly refused. Scared, they hunkered down inside, together with attorney Muhammad Shakir, the field investigator from the nonprofit Yesh Din − Volunteers for Human Rights group; the organization’s spokeswoman, Reut Mor; and a volunteer, Hanna Barag.

We drove around the deserted and silent interior roads of Homesh when suddenly a group of bearded young men appeared through the oleanders. One was armed with a rifle; his friend was wearing a face mask. They came out of nowhere and the truth is, their appearance was pretty scary. In no time, close to 10 young men gathered around us, sporting big knitted skullcaps and earlocks, wearing tattered clothing.

It is unclear where precisely they were staying, seeing as not one stone of the settlement’s former houses was left on top of another. One of the Palestinians said the men were staying in a nearby cave. Observing the events from a safe distance was a person who appeared to be the group’s rabbi, an older man dressed in a white shirt and black pants, with a beard and skullcap, mobile phone in hand.

“What are you all doing here,” we dared to ask, and one of the young men replied, “We live here.” They hissed something about leftist Jews, milled around us in an intimidating circle, and retorted: “We hate all the Arabs here.” They declined to answer any further questions.

Their conduct was strange and terrifying. The Palestinians who had come with us sat in the cars, frozen stiff with fear, trying to avoid being seen. It’s been a long while since we saw Palestinians so frightened. It was clear to all of us that we had better get out of there, as fast as possible.

Premature celebrations

Eight years ago, there was rejoicing in Burka. The evacuation of Homesh, as part of the disengagement from Gaza, gave a breath of hope to the village, which had suffered quite a few altercations and violent incidents with Homesh settlers. The leaders of the Palestinian Authority attended the celebrations in Burka. The villagers took to the land that had been redeemed and held a Friday prayer service on it. But they never went back. The celebrations were premature.

Soon enough, they learned that nothing had changed on the ground and the lands were far from being restored to their owners. Whenever the villagers tried to approach them, they were prevented from doing so by the IDF, or by settlers − who always popped up out of nowhere. Homesh encroached on their lands in 1978 via creation there of a Nahal settlement [an IDF program combining active duty with work in outlying settlements]. Some 1,200 dunams (1 dunam = .25 acre‏) were taken from the owners on the pretext of security. Later on, the settlement was built and another 5,000 dunams were added to those the Palestinians were not allowed to farm over the years ‏(because of their proximity to Homesh‏).

Six of the landowners petitioned the High Court in late 2011, through Yesh Din and its lawyers, Michael Sfard, Avisar Lev and Shlomi Zachary. After the state made its announcement last week, Justices Grunis, Naor and Hendel wrote in their decision: “We have noted before us that the seizure order is to be rescinded. Naturally, it is to be expected that this commitment will be realized within a reasonable time frame.”

However, another state order remains in effect − one that applies to the lands of all the settlements and bars Palestinians from entering. That order was not rescinded, even though Homesh itself was evacuated eight years ago. Yesh Din’s lawyers, therefore, plan to file another petition against this order as well. The restoration of the land to its owners still has a way to go.

We contacted Guy Inbar, the spokesman for Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, and asked when the landowners will be able to return to their land, and why the settlers are being allowed to stay on it. By press time he had failed to respond.

Over the years, several Burka residents have been killed in confrontations with the army and the settlers, and quite a lot of property damage was inflicted. This did not stop even after the disengagement in 2005. The village head has an organized file that lists all the damage the settlers have done, including after the disengagement: disrupting olive harvests, stealing sheep and goats, sabotaging farm equipment, raids.

Petitioner No. 5, the landowner Montassar Salah, says the IDF should set up roadblocks, to keep the settlers from invading his land − and his suggestion elicited bitter laughter in the council head’s room. Salah also has a building on his small parcel of land, measuring 80 dunams. Once upon a time, almond trees bloomed there. But he hasn’t been there in years. Perhaps the hilltop youth are now living in that very building.