A small boy sits on a hillside in the occupied West Bank. Like the adults around him, he trains a green laser beam on a group of prefabricated housing units on a hilltop a few hundred meters away. It is an act of defiance.
The buildings had been abandoned earlier in the day by Jewish settlers following an agreement they reached with the government, but before they left, they erected a huge metal Star of David, and planted a large Israeli flag, as if to say, “We will be back.”
For Palestinians from the town of Beita, exclamations of victory were ironic. “It’s free now!” a young man shouted, laughing.
The campaign against the settlement of Givat Evyatar had been going on for two months when the settlers left. The locals call their protest Irbak al Layli, usually translated as “night confusion” – disruption techniques taken from Gaza. The Israeli army calls them violent riots. It is the latest iteration of the conflict and it coincides with confrontations in Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as a renewed sense of contest among Palestinians over who leads their resistance.
“We have been coming every day for the last two months,” says Ahmad. “We are here to disturb the settlers, so they leave, and we get our land back.”
Ahmad is hammering an iron bar against an empty oil drum with all his might, while his young friends, with rocks in their hands, are beating the drum in rhythm.
Earlier, before nightfall, hundreds of young men armed with rocks and slingshots, and Molotov cocktails, had done battle with 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,” a 25-year-old man says, as he wraps his scarf tightly around his face to conceal his identity.
“Our souls are for this land. We will sacrifice our souls to set this land free. And that’s it. Easy peasy!”
Use of live ammunition
Since the beginning of May, Israeli soldiers using live ammunition have killed four people here, and seriously wounded dozens of others, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent (PRC).
One man shows CNN a video he and his friends made to memorialize his 16-year old cousin Mohammed Hamayel, shot dead two months ago. “Our brave Beita martyr, you rest, and we will continue resisting and struggling,” voices on the clip sing.
Another man, Tariq Hamayel, wears a T-shirt bearing a picture of his brother Zakaria, a schoolteacher. The 25-year-old had been burning tires down the hill from the settlers when he was shot as he recited the sunset prayer, Hamayel says.
The Israeli army, which says dozens of its soldiers have been injured by rocks, defends its use of live ammunition, maintaining it is only ever used as a last resort. An army official told CNN that soldiers were not following a shoot-to-kill policy. But the official was clear about the fact the army targets what it calls “main inciters” – those people it says are instigating or leading the protests.
If non-lethal force, like tear gas or rubber bullets, have failed to “lower the flame,” as the army puts it, then live ammunition can be used against the legs of the “main inciter” in order to “minimize the violence that could be happening if it gets out of hand.” Any use of live ammunition will have gone through a thorough process of authorization by superiors, the army adds.
Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard – who has represented human rights groups contesting the legality of the use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators – believes this is illegal under international law, which allows for the use of potentially lethal force against civilians only if they are posing an imminent serious threat to life or limb.
Avner Gvaryahu, executive director of Breaking the Silence, an organization that collects testimony from Israeli soldiers about their time in the army, goes further. “The Israeli military sees any Palestinian protest as illegitimate, regardless of what happens in it,” he says. The use of lethal force “is a message that shows Palestinians we will not accept any disturbance of the peace.”
The Israeli army official insisted the rules of engagement its soldiers follow are permissible under international law.
Settlements and outposts
Givat Evyatar sits on a hilltop known locally as Jabal Subeih. The site is seen as strategic, a high point along a corridor linking Tel Aviv to the Jordan Valley. That is important for the settler movement, whose ultimate aim is the annexation of as much of the West Bank – land captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War – as possible. Isolating Palestinian communities from one another helps in that goal.
Violent memory and ideology provide another motivation. In common with several other settlements in the West Bank, the name commemorates a death, that of Evyatar Borovsky, an Israeli stabbed to death at a nearby traffic 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 shooting attack at the same junction. Amid heightened tensions in Jerusalem, and an 11-day war between Hamas and Israel, buildings went up quickly, and within weeks, dozens of settlers had moved in.
Gershon Hacohen, a former major-general in the Israeli army, who is sympathetic to the settler movement, wrote that the establishment of Givat Evyatar reflected an old-fashioned “activist Zionism” that saw settlement building as a response in part to the “moral restriction on revenge attacks on Arabs.”
David Ha’ivri, deputy head of the Shomron Regional Council, which administers settlements in the northern part of the West Bank, explained Evyatar in equally defiant 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 to live.
“Israel has de facto been the sovereign of this land for 54 years. People who are not happy that the people of Israel are living in the heart of Israel, which is what Judea and Samaria is, they need to grin and bear it, and come to terms with reality,” he added, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.
According to Israeli settlement monitoring group Peace Now, Evyatar is one of more than 270 settlements in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. Under international law, they are all illegal.
Israel distinguishes between those 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 the protection of Israeli soldiers as they continued to develop and build the site.
The Israeli army argues it has no choice. “All citizens are protected under the law, also when they do criminal acts,” an Israeli army official said. “Our role, and our duty, is to protect.”
Resistance leadership up for grabs
The army does admit a line was crossed after photographs emerged in June of soldiers helping settlers move prefabricated buildings into position at the outpost. The soldiers involved were told they had done wrong, the official said.
Dror Etkes, a long-time anti-settlement activist, says the incident is highly illustrative. “The distinction between the settlers and the government is a non-existent one. It is one Israeli body that acts in the same direction, which is to dispossess Palestinians.”
Etkes and others like him are appalled at a deal reached between the settlers of Evyatar and the new Israeli government, whose right-wing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, once ran the umbrella body that looks after settlers’ interests.
That agreement saw the settlers consent to leave the site on condition the buildings would remain. A military post will be erected on the hilltop, with the prospect of a religious school to follow if an Israeli court – interpreting a law from Ottoman-era Palestine – determines the site can be declared “state land.”
Back in Beita, Nashat Al Aqtash, a media professor at Birzeit University, surveys the protests from his roof terrace.
An Israeli army drone passes overhead, before dropping tear gas canisters close to a group of young men with slingshots. With the white gas spewing out, one of the canisters is picked up and hurled in the direction of the soldiers.
“We are not braver than anyone else, but we have no choice. It is either to be, or not to be,” Aqtash says. “This Israeli government is supporting the settlers, morally, financially, saving them, guarding them.”
Aqtash – who served as a campaign manager for the independent Watan candidates list in canceled Palestinian legislative elections in the spring – says the protests are not being coordinated by any Palestinian political factions.
“Nobody is allowed to raise any flag except the Palestinian flag. No political parties are involved. If they were, it would be the end of the activities. This is a pure popular movement,” he says.
But with the Palestinian Authority increasingly seen as out of touch, the question of who leads resistance to Israel’s occupation is up for grabs, all the more so following demonstrations in East Jerusalem over the threat to expel Palestinian families from their homes, and the latest Gaza war.
Hamas, designated a terror group by the United States and others, is currently riding a wave of support, and was quick to claim the departure of the settlers from Evyatar, however temporary, as a victory for itself. A statement said the settlers’ withdrawal “marks a new achievement … which reaffirmed the ability of the resistance … to impose the will of our Palestinian people and beat 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 since the Canaanites,” he said. “They claim the land is theirs. But it is not. The most effective thing we have here is our unification. This is the secret for our victory.”
CNN’s Michael Schwartz contributed to this report.