The Jewish settlement of Homesh, built on privately owned Palestinian land deep inside the occupied West Bank, was dismantled in 2005 and cannot be rebuilt.
At least, that's what Israeli law says.
But when a group of settlers drove up to the site last week, they were waved through army checkpoints that were closed to Palestinian vehicles and arrived at a cluster of tents on the windy hilltop. There, dozens of settlers were studying in a makeshift yeshiva, or religious school.
Empty wine bottles and bags of trash stood out for collection, the remains of a holiday feast attended by hundreds of settlers the night before and documented on social media.
The settlers' ability to maintain a presence at Homesh, guarded by a detachment of Israeli soldiers, is a vivid display of the power of the settler movement nearly 55 years after Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war.
Their strength has also been on display in a wave of attacks against Palestinians and Israeli peace activists in recent months, many in plain view of Israeli soldiers, who appear unable or unwilling to stop them, despite Israeli officials' promises to maintain law and order. The worst of the violence has been linked to hard-line settler outposts like Homesh.
That Israeli authorities have not cleared Homesh — which under Israeli law is blatantly illegal — makes it nearly impossible to imagine the removal of any of Israel's 130 officially authorized settlements as part of any future peace deal. Nearly 500,000 settlers now live in those settlements, as well as dozens of unauthorized outposts like Homesh.
The Palestinians view the settlements as the main obstacle to any two-state solution to the century-old conflict, and most countries view them as a violation of international law. But in an increasingly hawkish Israel, the settlers enjoy wide support.
“We are privileged, thank God, to live here and study Torah, and we shall continue to do so with God’s help,” said Rabbi Menachem Ben Shachar, a teacher at the yeshiva.
“The people of Israel need to hold onto Homesh, to study Torah here and in every other place in the Land of Israel," he said, using a biblical term for what is today Israel and the West Bank.
Israel dismantled the settlement in 2005 as part of its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and the law prohibits Israeli citizens from entering the area. Israel's Supreme Court has acknowledged that the land belongs to Palestinians from the nearby village of Burqa
But the settlers have repeatedly returned, setting up tents and other structures on the foundations of former homes, now overgrown with weeds.
The army has demolished the structures on several occasions, but more often tolerates their presence. The Jan. 16 party was just the latest in a series of marches, political rallies and other gatherings held at the site over the years, some attended by Israeli lawmakers.
The Israeli military said in a statement that it did not approve the event and took steps to prevent civilians from reaching the area, including setting up checkpoints. The settlers appear to have walked around them. The military declined to discuss the larger issues around Homesh, and a government spokeswoman declined to comment.
The killing of a yeshiva student by a Palestinian gunman near the outpost last month has become a rallying cry for the settlers, who say evacuating Homesh now would amount to appeasing terrorism. But the survival of the outpost after 16 years is rooted in a deeper shift in Israel that makes it nearly impossible to rein in even the settlers' most brazen activities.
Israel's parliament is dominated by parties that support the settlers. The current government, a fragile coalition reliant on factions from across the political spectrum, knows that any major confrontation with the settlers could spell its demise. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a former settler leader and is opposed to Palestinian statehood.
The consequences are felt by Palestinians in Burqa and surrounding villages.
Over the weekend, masked settlers descended on another village in the northern West Bank, attacked a group of Palestinians and Israeli peace activists with stones and clubs, and set a car on fire. Israel's public security minister, Omer Barlev, called the attackers “terrorists” but said police have struggled to catch them because they flee before authorities arrive.
The owners of the land where Homesh was built risk being attacked by settlers if they try to access it. Yesh Din, an Israeli rights group that represents the residents of Burqa in court, has documented at least 20 attacks and seven incidents of property damage since 2017.
A 15-year-old Palestinian said he was kidnapped and tortured by settlers in August. Six farmers were hospitalized after settlers attacked them with metal batons and stones in November, according to B'Tselem, another Israeli rights group.
Ben Shachar, the teacher at the yeshiva, said farmers should coordinate their entry with the Israeli military. He said he's open to dialogue with “any Arab who accepts that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people," but that terrorism is “part of the DNA of Arab society.”
Yesh Din is currently petitioning the Supreme Court on behalf of the Palestinians, hoping it will pressure authorities to remove the outpost and allow them to access their land.
“It’s a funny petition, right?” said Lior Amihai, the director of Yesh Din. “We have a petition to enable Palestinians to enter their land, but according to the law they (already) have access to their land.”
Ghalib Hajah, who was born and raised in Burqa and now runs a prosperous construction firm inside Israel, is putting the finishing touches on what he had hoped would be a quiet country home for him and his wife. The balconies look out over rolling hills and olive terraces.
The day after the yeshiva student was killed, a group of settlers pelted Hajah's house with stones, shattering several of the newly installed windows as well as tiles from Italy stacked outside. Others smashed gravestones in the village cemetery.
“I hid inside, like a thief in my own house,” he said. “It’s not the first time they’ve been here ... Before you leave your house, you have to see whether there are settlers outside. They block the roads, they throw stones at cars."
He and other residents say settlers have attacked the village on more than a dozen occasions in recent years, with the army appearing powerless to stop them.
Instead, he has turned his new home into a fortress, with cameras mounted on the roof and heavy aluminum shutters on all windows and doors.
“There's no stability here,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Alon Bernstein contributed to this report.
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