Opinion |

Settlers Play Chicken With the Israeli Army in the West Bank

הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf
Israeli forces fire tear gas at Palestinians protesters a march by settlers to the wildcat settlement outpost of Homesh, in the West Bank village of Burqa, April 19, 2022.
Israeli forces fire tear gas at Palestinians protesters a march by settlers to the wildcat settlement outpost of Homesh, in the West Bank village of Burqa, April 19, 2022.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP
הגר שיזף
Hagar Shezaf

Thousands of settlers took part in a march to the illegal outpost of Homesh last Tuesday, a settlement evacuated during Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

In practice, it is an outpost in the form of a yeshiva that has been evacuated a number of times and is miraculously repopulated each time.

On Tuesday morning I sent the Spokesperson’s Unit of the Israeli military a question: From the army’s perspective, is this a legal march for which a permit was issued? It is not, officially, came the reply. In practice, the army provided security for the event, as any intelligent person could have known in advance.

This was known to the settlers of Homesh and their supporters, chief among them Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council who has repeatedly stated with due caution that the council does not fund the outpost. Still, he goes to Homesh and provides it with moral backing at every opportunity.

Nevertheless, about two weeks ago the military uploaded a slide presentation starring Samaria Brigade commander Roi Zweig, the one who told soldiers that they were guarding renovations at Joseph’s Tomb “not as thieves in the night, but as sons of kings. We are privileged to restore the honor of the land and the people of Israel.”

As part of his role in the play, Zweig sent the yeshiva a “resolute letter” in which he announced festively that the march would not be secured and that anyone who evaded the soldiers, who were to be deployed to prevent the event, “was taking his life into his own hands.” I wonder whether Zweig believed himself when he wrote those words.

The day before the march, I called the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson’s Unit to find out what the plans were. Again I was told that the march had not been approved and was not legal. However, the spokesman I interviewed added that the army could not afford to have 10,000 people wandering around the area without security.

Here comes the wink: Officially, the army tells the settlers it won’t let them hold an event at Homesh, both because it is an illegal settlement outpost and because two weeks earlier the army had promised not to approve it.

But a truth known to both sides is that by virtue of the “security situation” in the West Bank – more precisely, because there are Palestinian villages to which the march organizers want to approach – the army will come to guard the settlers. After all, everyone knows that if the march is held and, God forbid, something happens to any of the marchers, the finger of blame will be pointed at the army.

The military’s bias in the West Bank toward settlers is clear. First, because its mission is to protect Israeli citizens. Second, because there is a military regime, and like the last of the politicians both the Samaria Brigade commander and the head of the IDF Central Command – the sovereign in the West Bank – must maintain good relations with the public it is assigned to protect, and more than once the army has capitulated to that public’s whims.

Given all this, the only thing the settlers need to do is insist on holding a march or similar events. The army, whether it wants to or not, will join them. Another example of this was in Evyatar: After the illegal outpost was established, many soldiers came to guard it. In fact, they are still guarding its empty buildings.

Given all this, we have to question the meaning of the army spokesman’s insistence that these measures were not approved by the military. As a senior and well-connected settler told me, there is no official approval, but a green light was given to secure the march.

The day after the great march to Homesh, other right-wing demonstrators planned to march around the Old City of Jerusalem. This march was not approved by the police, but the marchers announced they would hold it anyway.

Seemingly, another game of chicken, except that on this side of the Green Line the authorities behave differently: The unauthorized march was not allowed to take place. The participants were blocked from proceeding. Even MK Itamar Ben-Gvir was in the end forced not to advance toward Damascus Gate, immediately after declaring that he would do so, despite the opposition of the police. And miraculously, the march did not take place on the unapproved route.

All of these developments were another example of the sham known as the “law enforcement authorities” in the West Bank. According to the Disengagement Law, it is illegal for Israeli citizens to stay in Homesh without IDF authorization. The military, as stated, claimed that it did not approve the march or the rally held afterward in the outpost.

Did anyone block the marchers’ path? Of course not. Among other things, according to informed sources, Defense Minister Benny Gantz was the one who intervened, the evening before the event, to allow the Homesh march to happen.

In this game of chicken, everyone knew ahead of time who would win. Anything else is a pretense, and it’s not clear that anyone still buys it.

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