The buildings had been abandoned earlier today by Jewish settlers following a deal they made with the government, but before leaving they erected a huge metal Star of David and planted a large flag Israeli, as if to say, “We will come back.”
For Palestinians in the city of Beita, the cries of victory were ironic. “It’s free now!” cried a young man, laughing.
The campaign against the settlement of Givat Evyatar had been going on for two months when the settlers left. Locals call their protest Irbak al Layli, commonly translated as “nocturnal confusion” – techniques of disruption taken in Gaza. The Israeli army calls them violent riots. This is the latest iteration of the conflict and it coincides with clashes in Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as a renewed sense of contestation among Palestinians over who is leading their resistance.
“We’ve been coming every day for the past two months,” says Ahmad. “We are here to disturb the settlers, so they go and we get our land back.”
Ahmad hammers an iron bar against an empty oil barrel with all his might, while his young friends, stones in hand, beat the drums in rhythm.
Earlier, before nightfall, hundreds of young men armed with stones and slings, and Molotov cocktails, had fought the Israeli army among olive trees and half-finished buildings. Ambulances are stationed on site.
“We have to tell them with this stone that this land is ours, not theirs,” said a 25-year-old man, wrapping his scarf tightly around his face to conceal his identity.
“Our souls are for this land. We will sacrifice our souls to free this land. And that’s it. Easy!”
Use of live bullets
Since the beginning of May, Israeli soldiers using live ammunition have killed four people here, and seriously injured dozens more, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent (PRC).
A man shows CNN a video he and his friends made to commemorate his 16-year-old cousin Mohammed Hamayel, who was shot dead two months ago. “Our brave martyr Beita, rest and we will continue to resist and struggle,” voices sing on the clip.
Another man, Tariq Hamayel, wears a T-shirt bearing the effigy of his brother Zakaria, a teacher. The 25-year-old was burning tires down the hill from settlers when he was shot while reciting the sunset prayer, Hamayel said.
The IDF, which claims dozens of its soldiers have been injured by stones, defends its use of live ammunition, saying they are never used as a last resort. An army official told CNN that soldiers do not follow a shoot-to-kill policy. But the official was clear that the military is targeting what it calls the “main instigators” – those people who it says are behind or leading the protests.
If non-lethal force, such as tear gas or rubber bullets, has failed to “lower the flame” as the military puts it, then live ammunition can be used against the legs of the “main instigator”. in order to “minimize the violence that could happen if it gets out of control.” Any use of live ammunition will have been the subject of a thorough process of authorization by the superiors, adds the army.
Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard – who has represented human rights groups challenging the legality of the use of lethal force against Palestinian protesters – believes it is illegal under international law, which allows the use of force potentially murderous against civilians only if they pose an imminent serious threat to life or physical integrity.
Avner Gvaryahu, executive director of Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects testimonies from Israeli soldiers about their time in the military, goes further. “The Israeli army considers any Palestinian demonstration to be illegitimate, no matter what happens there,” he said. The use of lethal force “is a message that shows the Palestinians that we will not accept any disturbance of the peace.”
The IDF official insisted that the rules of engagement followed by his soldiers are permitted by international law.
Colonies and outposts
Givat Evyatar sits on top of a hill known locally as Jabal Subeih. The site is seen as strategic, a highlight along a corridor connecting Tel Aviv to the Jordan Valley. This is important to the settler movement, whose ultimate goal is to annex as much of the West Bank – land captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war – as possible. Isolating Palestinian communities from each other helps achieve this goal.
Another motivation is violent memory and ideology. Like several other West Bank settlements, the name commemorates one death, that of Evyatar Borovsky, an Israeli stabbed to death at a nearby junction eight years ago.
After a number of earlier attempts to establish a permanent community there, the impetus to try again in May followed another death in a gunshot attack at the same crossroads. Amid heightened tensions in Jerusalem and an 11-day war between Hamas and Israel, buildings quickly erected and within weeks dozens of settlers settled there.
Gershon Hacohen, a former Israeli army major-general sympathetic to the settler movement, wrote that the creation of Givat Evyatar reflected an old-fashioned “militant Zionism” that saw settlement building as a response in part to the “Moral restriction of revenge attacks against Arabs.
David Ha’ivri, deputy head of the Shomron Regional Council, which administers the settlements in the northern part of the West Bank, explained Evyatar in equally provocative language: “If these people think they are going to wipe out Jewish life, then we have a surprise for them, we are not going to die, we are going to continue living.
“Israel has been the de facto ruler of this land for 54 years. People who are not happy that the people of Israel live in the heart of Israel, what Judea and Samaria is, they have to smile and endure it, and accept the reality, ”he added, making reference to the West Bank by its biblical names.
According to the Israeli settlement watch group Peace Now, Evyatar is one of 270 settlements in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Under international law, they are all illegal.
Israel distinguishes between settlements that have government approval and those like Evyatar, which do not, and are known as outposts.
But even though their establishment of the outpost was illegal under Israeli law, the settlers there still received protection from Israeli soldiers as they continued to develop and build the site.
The Israeli military maintains that it has no choice. “All citizens are protected by the law, even when they commit criminal acts,” said an IDF official. “Our role, and our duty, is to protect.”
The resistance leadership to win
The military admits that a line was crossed after the publication in June of photographs of soldiers helping settlers move prefabricated buildings into position at the outpost. The soldiers involved were told they had done something wrong, the official said.
Dror Etkes, a longtime anti-settlement activist, says the incident is very illustrative. “The distinction between the settlers and the government is non-existent. It is an Israeli organization which acts in the same direction, which is to dispossess the Palestinians.
Etkes and others like him are dismayed by the deal reached between the Evyatar settlers and the new Israeli government, whose right-wing prime minister Naftali Bennett once headed the coordinating body that looks after the interests of the settlers.
This agreement saw the settlers agree to leave the site on condition that the buildings remain. A military post will be erected at the top of the hill, with the prospect of a religious school to follow if an Israeli court – interpreting an Ottoman-era law of Palestine – determines that the site can be declared “state land.” “.
Back in Beita, Nashat Al Aqtash, media professor at Birzeit University, watches the protests from his rooftop terrace.
An Israeli army drone passes overhead, before releasing tear gas canisters near a group of young men armed with slingshots. As white gas spits out, one of the cans is picked up and thrown at the soldiers.
“We are not braver than anyone, but we have no choice. It is to be or not to be,” said Aqtash. “This Israeli government supports the settlers, morally, financially, saves them, keeps them.”
Aqtash – who served as campaign manager for Watan’s list of independent candidates in the canceled Palestinian parliamentary elections in the spring – said the protests are not coordinated by any Palestinian political faction.
“No one is allowed to hoist a flag except the Palestinian flag. No political party is involved. If they were, that would be the end of activities. It is a pure popular movement,” he said.
But with the PA increasingly seen as disconnected, the question of who is leading the resistance to the Israeli occupation remains to be grasped, especially after the protests in East Jerusalem over the threat of evicting families. Palestinians from their homes, and the last war.
Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the United States and others, is currently riding a wave of support, and has been quick to claim the departure of settlers from Evyatar, however temporary, as a victory for itself. . A statement said that the withdrawal of the settlers “marks a new achievement … which reaffirms the capacity of the resistance … to impose the will of our Palestinian people and to push back the occupation wherever it exists.”
A young Palestinian returning through the olive groves from a confrontation with Israeli soldiers was not interested in internal Palestinian politics. “We are here from the Canaanites,” he said. “They claim the land is theirs. But they don’t. The most effective thing we have here is our unification. It’s the secret of our victory.”
CNN’s Michael Schwartz contributed to this report.