Palestinians rally while Israeli settlers claim West Bank hilltop

Under deal reached with Israeli authorities, settlers will move out imminently and military will take control of area

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Deep in the West Bank, Palestinians have watched as Israelis defied their own government and built a settlement among the olive trees. After weeks of fiery protests, the new residents are set to depart but Israel will hold on to the foundations they laid.

On the edge of Beita village, south of Nablus, Palestinians stand among patches of scorched earth while black smoke drifts towards the Israeli outpost.

“No one from Israel should be here,” said Mohammed Khader, a 19-year-old student from the village.

He is one of hundreds of young Palestinians who have taken to the hillside to protest, darting through the valley and up towards the outpost.

Israeli soldiers have fired on the protesters and killed five people, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Medics have treated 90 others for bullet wounds and more than 1,440 for injuries sustained from rubber bullets and teargas in recent weeks.

Mr Khadar said his brother was shot in the leg, while he himself had bullets flying past while he was carrying the Palestinian flag.

“When we are throwing stones, they are shooting; when we are doing our protest peacefully, they are shooting,” he told The National.

Palestinians have also launched a series of “night disruption” protests, lighting up the sky with laser beams and setting tyres on fire in a bid to disturb the settlers.

The acrid smoke blows towards the outpost, where dozens of prefabricated and breezeblock homes have been erected since May.

More than 35 Palestinian families had been farming the land and harvesting olives, according to Beita municipality, a claim disputed by the settlers.

At least 50 Israeli families have moved on to the hilltop, where tarmac has been laid and a sweet machine stands beside a street sign. In addition to essentials such as water and electricity, the residents have brought in a playground and laid AstroTurf outside some homes.

Settlers have repeatedly tried to move into the area since 2013, when Israeli Eviatar Borovsky was killed by a Palestinian nearby. The new site has been named after him.

The outpost breaks Israeli law, which permits only state-sanctioned settlement construction in the West Bank. Global consensus deems all settlements in the West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, illegal under international law.

The newcomers, however, have the backing of the Samaria Regional Council, the Israeli body which oversees official settlements in the area.

“We think it’s a very important thing that they’re doing; it’s the right thing to do to settle and build the country,” said Esther Alush, spokeswoman for the council.

The settlers have been funded by Israeli and foreign donors, she said, while day-trippers have visited to offer their support.

“The community can protect Israel. It’s on a road which connects between the centre of Israel and the Jordan Valley,” said the council spokeswoman.

The prospect of a settlement popping up between Palestinian villages has caused alarm in Beita.

“It’s very sensitive,” said Amjad Abu El Ezz, an academic and Beita resident.

“You’re talking about a big ambition to extend the area to reach, to connect” with other settlements, he said.

The scale of the settlement also poses a significant challenge to the Israeli political establishment.

Construction began when tension was high in Jerusalem, with riot police confronting Palestinian protesters nightly, and continued apace during the 11-day war between Israel and Gaza militants.

Intense negotiations were then under way to unseat Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who was replaced as prime minister by Naftali Bennett on June 13.

A pro-settlement nationalist, Mr Bennett is part of a broad coalition which for the first time in Israeli history includes an Arab party.

Although settlers were repeatedly evicted from outposts during Mr Netanyahu’s tenure, the current coalition is under intense pressure from right-wing opposition politicians to prevent the army from forcing the residents out.

This week, a deal was clinched under which the settlers will leave the site imminently but the buildings will remain.

The Israeli military, which along with the police has been present at the site, is expected to take control of the hilltop before a Jewish religious school potentially opens there.

The deal is seen as an initial step towards establishing a formal settlement at the site, a move slammed by Israeli NGO Peace Now as a “capitulation”.

With no path to the hilltop open to Palestinians, the residents of Beita are expected to keep up their protests across the valley.

“The message is that there is no real change in the day-to-day reality for Palestinians in the occupied territories, and that settlers can still do as they please,” said Peace Now.

Updated: July 01, 2021, 6:16 AM