Staff at Israel's defense bodies have been warning the army, police and Shin Bet for months that the yeshiva operating at the Homesh outpost in the West Bank was becoming a focal point for violence that could end up endangering the settlers living there illegally.
Despite the warnings and a series of violent incidents occurring in the Homesh area recently, the army has not acted to block settlers from coming to the yeshiva.
The sources pointed to an incident in November, a month before the shooting attack in which yeshiva student Yehuda Dimentman was killed, when settlers attacked five Palestinians who had come to harvest olives and seriously wounded one of them.
The incident summary prepared by the Israel Defense Forces found that a group of settlers staying at the yeshiva attacked the Palestinians in an attempt to drive them away from the olive trees. One of the settlers fired in the air in the direction of the Palestinians, who fled the scene, while others attacked them with rocks and clubs. Two of the Palestinians were taken to the hospital, one in serious condition and another lightly wounded.
Israel’s security services were informed of the incident the day it happened by Palestinian sources. Officials treated the incident as irregular and, in an assessment written up later, officers warned that the growing tensions in Homesh might lead one or both of the sides to an extreme act that undermines security across the West Bank.
Ten days after the incident, officials decided to clear out the yeshiva and other structures erected illegally at the site, as had been done many times before. The settlers were at Homesh illegally and in violation of a Central Command directive. But the decision to remove them was also taken out of fear for the security of settlers themselves and the risk of rising tensions with nearby Palestinians.
But sources in the security establishment criticized the IDF and Shin Bet’s longer-term policies vis a vis the Homesh settlers. One source familiar with the matter said the IDF hadn’t done enough in recent years to prevent the settlers from reaching the site to begin with. Recent announcements by the army calling the place “the Homesh outpost” also drew criticism: A senior government source said that Homesh was not an outpost and that the settlers there are “acting illegally.”
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Since Homesh was dismantled in 2005 as part of the Gaza disengagement, settlers have returned to the site from time to time and rebuilt the yeshiva building. The IDF has enforced the ban, and the Civil Administration eventually demolishes the structures.
But a security source dismissed the policy as a “cat and mouse game” that has turned into a routine. Although the army has wanted to put an end to it, in practice nothing has been done. “We have a problem with this issue,” he explained, adding that interference by politician leaders was at least in part responsible.
At a meeting of senior IDF, Shin Bet, police and other security officials called three weeks ago to discuss growing settler violence, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said concerns about settler attacks on Palestinians had been raised by the United States and European Union and that the matter was a source of embarrassment for both Israel and Washington.
Gantz said that in meetings over the past month with foreign governments, Israeli diplomats and defense officials had been asked to explain settler violence and were quizzed about what the government would decide in regard to the status of the now cleared-out Evyatar outpost.
At the meeting, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi demanded that Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai allocate more personnel to the police’s Samaria and Judea District to forestall incidents that could inflame tensions in the area.
At an assessment at IDF headquarters the following week, participants told Haaretz that Kochavi instructed them to show more resolute action against the settlers. “We must do everything to prevent harm to innocents on both sides,” Kochavi said at the meeting. “I won’t accept a situation where soldiers stand by while settlers attack Palestinians.”
Among other steps, Kochavi ordered the expansion of a pilot program conducted over the past three months by the Shomron Brigade, in which a team headed by the brigade commander has been employed to crack down on nationalist crime. Kochavi said the program should be expanded to the Yehuda Brigade based in the Hebron area, the Etzion Brigade in the Bethlehem area and the Benjamin Brigade in the Ramallah area.