Whenever an isolated settlement is evacuated or an illegal outpost dismantled in the West Bank, Israel’s national-religious right (the ideological, though not necessarily demographic, core of the settlement movement) retains a sort of triumphal self-assuredness. That confidence isn’t totally unwarranted. While the evacuation of an outpost is a tactical defeat for the settlers, yesterday’s events demonstrated just how much they are able to get away with. Nine Israeli police personnel were wounded over the course of the one-day evacuation; contrast with four soldiers injured by Palestinian rioters across two months of demonstrations at the Gaza border. Notwithstanding that the police in Netiv Ha’avot operated at much closer proximity to the settlers than the army was vis-a-vis hostile Palestinians along the Gaza border, the muted response to the violence in Netiv Ha’avot from Prime Minister Netanyahu and leading members of his cabinet like Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is telling.Even if a minority of those present at Netiv Ha’avot behaved violently, there was no serious effort to distinguish them from the rest of the settlers who either protested peacefully or voluntarily removed themselves from the outpost. To their credit, local leaders and the Netiv Ha’avot settlers appealed for a peaceful demonstration, but things did not pan out this way in the end. In the meantime, there was radio silence from Bennett and Shaked, whose Jewish Home party might hold some sway over the people. It appears that the violent agitators yesterday were radical “hilltop youth,” not necessarily from Netiv Ha’avot, but Gush Etzion leaders could reasonably have expected that an evacuation would be a magnet for such militants. Typically, people who physically assault Israeli security forces are branded terrorists and uniformly rebuked across the political spectrum. As defenders, Netiv Ha’avot had government ministers and members of the current Knesset coalition. The entire incident also demonstrated the depths of the disconnect between Israeli settlers and their Palestinian neighbors. On the eve of the evacuation, a rally took place in support of the outpost’s residents. I have no doubt that being removed from one’s home is traumatic, particularly for children who had no say in their parents’ political decision to live in an unauthorized settlement. However, it is hard to see so much emotion and manpower expended in a rally over fifteen houses when throughout the occupied territories, 11,000 Palestinian homes are under demolition orders, accounting for 200,000 people or roughly eight percent of all West Bank Palestinians. That unfortunate reality, of course, is an indirect result of the settlement movement, with most Palestinian home demolitions occurring in Area C, the section of the West Bank under full Israeli military and civilian settler control. Amid all the sackcloth torn over Netiv Ha’avot, the narrative of person-to-person engagement and coexistence advanced by many national-religious settler leaders falls apart.
Settlement evacuations like Netiv Ha’avot represent a victory for the rule of law, but it is hardly a sustainable win for the left. They don’t represent a broad or consistent political program. Rather, they are enforcement of individual court rulings, the result of petitions from aggrieved Palestinian landowners, filed with the assistance of Israeli NGOs (in this case, Peace Now and Yesh Din). The court happened to rule Netiv Ha’avot unlawful, but most West Bank settlement activity is legal in Israel. Bennett is already promising that 350 homes will replace the 15 demolished by the Israeli authorities. He may not be all talk in this respect. The Jewish Home leader made similar statement when Amona, another unsanctioned outpost, was cleared out early last year. The government followed up on that affair with the announcement of an entirely new settlement.
It is difficult to extract any kind of positive take away from the Netiv Ha’avot evacuation. In the immediate future, the trajectory of this issue will hinge on the fate of the Regulation Law, which Israel’s Supreme Court is currently examining. That piece of legislation, which Israel’s attorney general has declined to defend, aims to legalize unsanctioned settlements in the West Bank. Should the law be upheld, the evacuation of Netiv Ha’avot will be a pyrrhic victory for opponents of unrestrained settlement expansion ahead of a long train of defeats.