Why is Homesh the latest Israeli-Palestinian hotspot? - 8 takes

Some 200 settlers in 2005 might have tearfully bid goodbye to the picturesque community which they thought of a 'little Switzerland,' but many of them never gave up on the vision of a return.

Mourners attend the funeral of Yehuda Dimentman, in Homesh last month. (photo credit: FLASH90)
Mourners attend the funeral of Yehuda Dimentman, in Homesh last month.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

The Palestinian gunmen who killed Yehuda Dimentman, 25, as he left the Homesh hilltop gave an emotional boost to the almost 17-year campaign to restore a Jewish community to that West Bank height which overlooks a vast expanse of the country, from Tel Aviv to Safed. 

Some 200 settlers in 2005 might have tearfully bid goodbye to the picturesque community which they thought of a “little Switzerland,” but many of them never gave up on the vision of a return.

The persistent battle for that hilltop has occasionally made headlines but has mostly been overshadowed by larger issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

As the movement to apply sovereignty to Judea and Samaria gained steam, smaller localized land battles such as Homesh almost seemed to pale in significance.

The suspension of West Bank annexation plans and the lack of any peace process have shifted the focal point of the conflict to land battles with the potential to spark far-reaching violence.

Here are eight takes on how this battle emerged and why it matters.

 Right wing activists protest the demolition of structures in the illegal outpost of Homesh, outside the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on January 13, 2021 (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) Right wing activists protest the demolition of structures in the illegal outpost of Homesh, outside the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on January 13, 2021 (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

1. Annexation suspension

Two years ago the Right dreamed that its long-sought-after dream of Israeli sovereignty over portions, if not all, of Area C of the West Bank would finally come to fruition.

The suspension of the sovereignty plan to annex half of Area C in the summer of 2020 was the start of one long series of loses for the Right. 

The drive to authorize 70 West Bank outposts failed, as did the one to have former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government declare an intent to legalize those fledgling communities.

The tantalizing dream of a government made up solely of right-wing parties led by Netanyahu collapsed, only to be replaced by a coalition government of the Right, Center and Left.

The advancement of building plans for Judea and Samaria dropped by 70%. Significant building projects were put on hold, such as the Atarot one in Jerusalem and E1 in Ma’aleh Adumim.

A Palestinian state might not immediately be in the offing, but neither is significant settlement advancement. 

The Right and the settler movement are in need of immediate and tangible points of success in order to stem the tide of defeats.

2. Grassroots success with Evyatar

The one significant point of success was the government agreement to authorize the Evyatar settlement, following a grassroots campaign.

In the aftermath of the May terrorist attack at the Tapuah junction that claimed the life of Yehuda Guetta, 19, some 50 families illegally moved onto the Evyatar hilltop off of Route 505.

Timing was everything for this campaign, which maximized the distraction created by the Gaza war in May and the formation of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government.

To avoid a violent forced eviction of settlers, the new government struck a deal by which the Evyatar activists would voluntarily leave the hilltop in exchange for authorization of a yeshiva and a settlement there.

It showed that a sustained campaign by settlers and the Right, in this case the Samaria Regional Council and the Nachala Movement, could still move the government’s agenda on the micro level.

3. A stand against the 2005 Disengagement

The emotional appeal of the Homesh battle comes primarily from the continued trauma in the Right from the 2005 Disengagement in which Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, destroying 21 settlements while simultaneously evacuating four settlements in northern Samaria. These were Homesh, Sa-Nur, Ganim and Kadim.

Israel’s complete pullout from Gaza, now ruled by Hamas, means that those 21 settlements can be rebuilt only if the IDF ousts Hamas, returns to the Strip and restores Israeli military rule there.

The four northern communities differ from their Gaza counterparts because the IDF maintained its military rule over those sites. 

The Right has long argued that it is only a matter of government will that prevents the reconstruction of those communities. 

It has had little political success on that front. During Netanyahu’s tenure in government, multiple bills were filed to repeal Disengagement and restore the northern Samaria community, all of which were rejected. The only one moment of success came just on the eve of the fall of Netanyahu’s last government in 2021, when such a private member’s bill passed the Knesset’s arrangements committee. 

A number of Knesset caucuses have also been created to advance the matter, including one called Homesh First. Among the most persistent political voices have been MK Yuli Edelstein (Likud) and Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan, himself an evacuee from Sa-Nur.

The story has been no different with Bennett. Last month the Knesset plenum rejected by 59 votes a call to rebuild Homesh, with only 50 parliamentarians supporting it. 

Such a step would be seen as a sign of a potential future victory in three arenas. First, that Israel would one day reenter Gaza and rescind Disengagement. Second, that it plans to hold on to Area C of the West Bank, which is under IDF military and civilian rule. Third, that a Palestinian state would not be created, certainly not in Area C.

4. A stand against a Palestinian state

The “Peace to Prosperity” plan, published by former US president Donald Trump in January 2020, placed the sites of the four evacuated northern Samaria settlements within what it believed would be the borders of a future Palestinian state.

This meant that its sovereignty plan that would allow Israel to annex half of Area C of the West Bank did not include these sites.

It was a sharp reminder to the proponents of rebuilding the northern Samaria communities as to why they had to step up the battle on their behalf.

But a settlement on the Homesh hilltop, which is in close proximity to Palestinian villages and more than 16 kilometers over the pre-1967 lines, would likely stymie plans for a Palestinian state in that area between Nablus and Jenin.

The Palestinians, the international community and those on the Israeli far Left believe that all settlements should be evacuated in favor of a two-state solution at the pre-1967 lines.

But even for many of those who hold that a two-state solution should include Israeli sovereignty over the settlement blocs or even all of the settlements, rebuilding Homesh would be a step a step to far. 

The authorization of Homesh would be seen as a direct statement by the Israeli government that it opposes a future Palestinian state anywhere in Area C.

Evyatar is similarly located deep within the West Bank, but it is off of a road linking the Samaria region to the Jordan Valley, which many on the Israeli Right hope to maintain in any future scenario.

5. Settlers never left Homesh

The initial Homesh settlement had received a boost in its final years from religious families that moved into the otherwise secular community, in the midst of the Second Intifada. This included the Homesh Yeshiva, which opened its doors in 2002.

In the aftermath of the Disengagement, the yeshiva illegally remains on the hilltop, holding classes sometimes in tents and other times in modular buildings. It has withstood numerous IDF evacuations over the years, including during Netanyahu’s tenure. 

There were also periodic attempts by families to build modular homes at the site, but the IDF has destroyed such structures and kept the situation from reaching the level of Evyatar. 

Dimentman was a student at the yeshiva, and had dedicated his life to pushing for the reconstruction of Homesh. Activists have not maintained a consistent presence on the other three evacuated sites.

6. Settlement authorization as a stand against terror

Historically, the Right has argued that settlement building is the best deterrence against terrorist attacks in the West Bank. It believes that Palestinian terrorists would refrain from future attacks, should they be linked to the creation of new settlements or settlement building. 

The right-wing group HaBithonistim, made up of former IDF officers, has argued that the Homesh hilltop is a particularly strategic one given its commanding view of the breadth of Israel and that a settlement there would help ensure the security of the entire country.

7. Homesh is not Evyatar

The battle for Homesh cannot be compared to the one for Evyatar, even though both were sparked by fatal terrorist attacks and received a boost from the emotional need on the Right to redeem those deaths.

The status of the Evyatar land is still legally under investigation, and it could be presumed that there was enough state land on the hilltop to support a settlement.

The deal was based on the assumption that a Civil Administration assessment of the hilltop would end in a declaration of state land.

The legal barriers on Homesh are entirely different. The initial Homesh settlement was first created in 1980 on land that the IDF had initially seized for military reasons from the nearby Palestinian village of Burka in 1978. 

In the aftermath of Homesh’s demolition, the seizure order was nullified when the High Court of Justice in 2013 granted the Palestinians from Burka the right to farm that land.

The High Court, since 1979, has frowned on settlement construction on private Palestinian property, and would be unlikely to support it here.

Israelis are legally barred from being on the site, but the IDF has not upheld that edict.

Dagan has argued that the small parcels of state land on the hilltop are big enough to support a settlement. The left-wing group Peace Now dismissed that assessment, providing a map of land allocations that showed how minimal it was.

The Evyatar campaign came when the Bennett government was in its infancy and couldn’t afford a forced evacuation. Half-a-year later, with one budget already passed, it has more leeway to make tough decisions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is therefore more likely to stand firm on Homesh, particularly in light of the legal challenge in involved. 

At best it could be expected to stand behind a compromise in which the yeshiva might be allowed to be on the site in a modified form.

8. Homesh as a spark for violence

The Left has argued that the continued presence of right-wing activists and the yeshiva at Homesh is a catalyst for violence, particularly given that Palestinians also use that hilltop.

The left-wing NGO Yesh Din has claimed that there have been 27 incidents of nationalistic violence against Palestinians in the area of Homesh since 2017, of which only seven were limited to property damage, and the rest involved physical assault.

There were multiple clashes between right-wing activists and Palestinian farmers around that hilltop in 2021.

The IDF charged that, earlier this month, settlers from Homesh vandalized Palestinian property, and that Palestinians had stoned Israeli cars.

It is that kind of violence that is often the catalyst for larger-scale incidents that cut across the West Bank and contribute to instability.