RAMALLAH: Extremist Israeli government ministers led thousands of settlers on Monday on a march to an illegal settler outpost in the occupied West Bank that was abandoned two years ago.
The Avitar outpost, built on Palestinian land on Mount Sabih south of Nablus, is illegal even under Israeli law, and the marchers demand that it be repopulated is the latest challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin’s authority by far-right members of his Cabinet.
Waving Israeli flags and chanting religious slogans and songs, settlers from across Israel marched toward the outpost. They were protected by Israeli security forces who attacked Palestinian protesters near by. The Palestinian Red Crescent treated 216 people suffering from tear gas inhalation and 22 hurt by rubber bullets.
The march was led by more than 20 Knesset members and seven Israeli ministers, including National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who are leading demands for the legalization of outposts. “With God’s help we will legalize dozens more,” Ben-Gvir said at the march.
Rivka Katzir, 74, who lives in the Elkan settlement, said: “I believe that the one solution for all of this problem is if we will settle this place. If there is a new settlement that we want to develop, then we will walk there.”
All settlements are illegal under international law, but Israel distinguishes between those planned by the state and outposts established by rogue settlers’ groups without government permission.
The Avitar outpost was set up by one such group in 2013, and destroyed and rebuilt several times between then and July 2021, when the last settlers were evicted. Over the years the outpost sparked violent clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinians from the nearby town of Beita, in which 12 Palestinians were killed.
Ministers including Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are at the forefront of demands for settlement expansion. Last month the Knesset paved the way for settlers’ return to four settlements in the occupied West Bank by amending a 2005 law that ordered their evacuation, a move condemned by Palestinian leaders and the EU.
In February Israel granted retroactive recognition to eight illegal West Bank outposts, also condemned by international organizations.
Ghassan Daghlas, who is responsible at the Palestinian Presidency for the settlement issue in the northern West Bank, told Arab News that the settlers’ march aimed to legitimize the theft and plundering of Palestinian lands in favour of Israeli settlement.
“We are facing a new settlement battle with this extreme right-wing Israeli government, and if their policies are not met with a strong Palestinian and international popular response, they will reactivate settlement in the northern West Bank and rebuild the settlements that were evacuated in 2005,” he said.