Hundreds of youths began marching Monday morning toward the former northern West Bank settlement of Homesh, which was evacuated about a year and a half ago as part of the disengagement plan. By noon, 3,000 people had arrived in the evacuated settlement.
The marchers were guarded by IDF and Border Guard forces and were carrying sleeping bags. The first group entered the former settlement in the late morning hours and flew an Israeli flag over a water tower.
Thousands of right-wing activists were expected to arrive in the area later in the day from the across the country in a bid to resettle the former settlement.
In an effort to prevent violent clashes, the IDF announced that it would enable settlers to arrive in Homesh but would not allow them to rebuild the settlement.
The right-wing activists, most of them teenagers, set up tents and mattresses and said they planned to spend the night in Homesh in order to rebuild the settlement the next day. Families with children also arrived in the area.
Meanwhile, Palestinians threatened to hurt the marchers. Abu Araj, a senior commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades in Jenin, said that if the settlers try to enter Homesh, the situation will return to its original state as far as the Palestinians as concerned.
"They will face an armed resistance, fire and terror attacks. We shall not ignore this entry, and like in the past, we will exert every effort to liberate our land," he declared.
Yedidia Lerner, 27, a former Homesh resident, was one of the first to arrive.
"It took me an hour and a half to get here," he told Ynet. "I think I was strongly hurt by the destruction because I was alone. This is the first time I came here since the evacuation, and my first response was to tear my shirt. I felt the loss, as there is nothing left here."
Extreme right-wing activist Baruch Marzel, who wishes to build a house in the former settlement, also arrived in the area.
"When you come here you learn that those responsible for this destruction have a mental problem. There is no reason for this and no demographic reason. This is the less crowded area in terms of the Arab population. The houses were destroyed for no reason," he told Ynet.
Peretz: There will be no takeover of Homesh
At first, security forces announced that they would not allow anyone to arrive at the evacuated settlement. However, in a discussion held by the IDF and the army Sunday night, it was decided that hundreds of soldiers and police officers would take part in the operation and that additional forces would be dispatched to the area if needed.
The IDF fears head-on clashes between the soldiers and the settlers, as well as the dangers lying in wait for marchers who may attempt to reach Homesh through Palestinian villages without coordinating with the army.
On Monday he clarified that he had instructed the IDF to ensure that "there are no law violations and no takeover of any part of the Homesh area. It should be made clear that if settlers violate the rules and agreements, they will be evacuated without any compromises."
'Soldiers turned into accomplices to a crime'
The Left slammed the decision to allow IDF forces to secure Monday’s march.
"The defense minister is turning IDF soldiers, against their will, into accomplices to a crime," MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) said.
"Instead of the IDF enforcing the law and preventing the settlers from reaching Homesh, it is ensuring their security and facilitating their arrival," she continued.
Peace Now Director Yariv Oppenheimer also accused the IDF of breaking the law by guarding the evacuees during their march.
“It’s an outrage. Everything they’re doing is illegal. There is a law that unequivocally states that returning to evacuated areas is prohibited without a special permit being issued. There is no such permit,” Oppenheimer said.
“We’re not allowed to get close when we go to protest; they set up roadblocks and what not. Here they are being allowed to return, while they are breaking the law. They can pass with no hindrance,” he continued.
Oppenheimer said that the most disturbing thing about the affair was the fact that the settlers were not hiding their intentions of resettling Homesh. “They don’t intend to leave there, so why is the army allowing them to go there in the first place?”
“It is inconceivable. The army’s job is not to treat them like kings, the people who are unequivocally advocating breaking the law. It’s unbelievable. If they stay in the territories, we will appeal to the High Court of Justice,” Oppenheimer said.
MK Ofir Pines-Paz (Labor) also criticized Peretz, as well as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
“The prime minister’s and defense minister’s defeatist attitude towards the law-breakers in Homesh proves yet again that we have a morally spineless, agenda-lacking government, which has no right to exist,” Pines-Paz concluded.
Olmert commented on the march following his meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at his Jerusalem residence on Monday.
“This visit will end today. I hope we will not have to evacuate the citizens. We are committed to our prior obligation to evacuate illegal outposts, and we have no intention of allowing the establishment of one,” Olmert said.
Hanan Greenberg, Meital Tzur, Ronny Sofer and Amnon Mernada contributed to the report