Chomesh in the news: They take it down. A yeshiva goes up. They take it down. They put it up again. And they threaten to take it back down again. The operations against the yeshiva are more intense now, after the 17 December 2021 murder of Yehuda Dimentman (25). He was killed by terrorists when he was leaving Chomesh after a day of yeshiva study to go home to his wife and child in nearby Shavei Shomron.
Wednesday (25 May) may be a turning point. The Knesset will discuss an amendment to the Disengagement Law, which forbids re-established of the four Jewish communities in northern Samaria erased in 2005 along with the pull out from Gaza. The amendment seeks to cancel that prohibition and allow Chomesh (and the other communities) to come to life once more. This will be a preliminary reading of the bill that was tabled about a month and a-half ago by MKs Yuli Edelstein (Likud) and Orit Strock (Religious Zionism) and others.
Strock and Edelstein have been leading the battle to revive Chomesh. 0n 19 April, approximately 20,000 people came out to march toward the barriers set up by the IDF to keep Jews out. That was the largest show of public support for Chomesh. Before and after this demonstration, she brought MKs and others to the yeshiva on multiple occasions in her fight for Israel’s right to be there.
In March, I joined a visit to the site when MKs Orit Strock and Edelstein and Shomron Regional Council Head Yossi Dagan went to Chomesh in a solidarity visit to the students and rabbis at the yeshiva. We had to pass through two barriers that were set up to keep Jews out. In this article, I will descibe what I saw on that visit, followed by a discussion of the significance of Chomesh and a legal issue that is only raised by Israeli leftwing NGOs who are fighting againt Israeli rights in Judea-Samaria.
I generally publish articles much closer to the event, the event being my visit there. However, it was the legal issue that I struggled to verify that held me up. Let me explain this up front. Before going up there, I had heard that there was a claim that the land on which Chomesh stood was privately owned Arab land. I asked about this when I was at the yeshiva and the person I was talking with told me that I should not mention that. Well, he did not really know who he was talking to when he made that suggestion. I am not one to give up on understanding all sides of any story I feel worthy of my attention. I felt uncomfortable. If it really was privately owned Arab land, could I support re-establishing the community on that spot? If it was not (and I hoped it was not, as those of you who know me probably knew without me saying so), then I would be able to unambiguously shout out my support for Chomesh.
But before we get to that, I want you to experience Chomesh as I experienced it — with the question mark hanging over me. If you do not have the patience, you can skip directly to the section entitled “What is so special about Chomesh”. That section includes a discussion of this legal issue. Then you can come back here and see Chomesh as I saw it.
My Visit to Chomesh
Remember, I already mentioned barriers that were erected to keep Jews out. We crossed two of these, one on the Route 60, at a section of the road leading to the junction with the dirt road up to the site and a second at that junction itself.
A funny thing happened at the first barrier, a relatively new barrier beyond which Jewish cars were not allowed to pass. Our group was held up there even though we were now on foot. Soldiers told us that only those on a pre-registered list were allowed to walk through. Strock, Edelstein and Dagan engaged the most senior soldier who showed them documentation saying exactly that, but Strock pointed out that the same document also gave the officer some discretion in the matter and she insisted that her staff and sole journalist (me) also be allowed through. As they were arguing about this, quite a line of cars accumulated and after some time, frustrated drivers began to honk.
The man in the first car (against which I had earlier unceremoniously propped myself) got out and started shouting at us:
I am a sick man. [. . . ] You are a member of the Knesset [. . . ] I am an Israeli; I am just like you. Just like you. Just like you. Israeli. You were born Jewish, I was born an Arab, that’s all the difference.
I wonder in what other circumstances he repeats such a statement. Also, what this man did not realize is that he was soon to be free to pass through and we Jews were not. A soldier told us that there were cases of Jews taking off their kipas and saying they were Arabs but it was obvious they were not so they were not let through. What did the Arab man think later, when the barrier was opened and it became clear that it was set up against us Jews and not him, Israelis as we both are?
Yeshiva Head Rabbi Elishema Cohen brought his car down from the yeshiva to about a hundred meters beyond the barrier to take took us from there to Homesh. We thought we would be driven all the way up to the yeshiva but we the second barrier, in fact the first that had been erected. This one was up since Purim, when entrance was prohibited to all except a few who were students at the yeshiva. You can see in the photo below the bulldozed parking spot on the side of the road where the barrier is. Parking on both sides of the road was torn up after Dimentman’s murder.
The Rabbi’s car was let through but everyone in it had to get out and cross on foot. Another heated discussion as the officer did not want to let anyone through but Strock, Edelstein and Dagan. When he found out I was a journalist, he said: “Especially not you.” I thought being a journalist offered a free entrance ticket to many places otherwise out-of-bounds! In any case, Strock motioned to me to come along with her so I did. Then we climbed back into the car and were taken up to the top of the hill, to Chomesh.
There were about 30-40 young men there and their rabbi. Some were in a provisory kitchen preparing a meal and others were studying. The rabbi and a few of the men spoke with us. I listened. Then I had one man take me around to see the site. Let me show it to you in photos:
Here I am standing in front of the yeshiva study hall:
And here is where the young men sleep (I was asked if I wanted to see their toilet and shower facilities but seeing this space and remembering what the bathrooms of my male university student friends were like, I declined the pleasure):
This tent holds the kitchen. It was dark inside and not conducive to photography. You can see the pile of garbage — there is no garbage collection service here so they have to take care of that themselves.
Yeshiva students sit with Orit Strock for a discussion.
MKs Orit Strock and Yuli Edelstein in conversation with Yeshiva Head Elishema Cohen and Rabbi Menachem Ben-Shahar. In the background to the right you can see the only water container on the site.
And here is how they get water up to the Yeshiva. (Video Credit: Chomesh Yeshiva)
And finally, the view from Homesh showing the lay of the land all the way out to Hadera. On clear days you can see the Galilee up to the peaks of the Hermon, the University of Haifa, and the coast as far south as Ashdod.
What is so special about Chomesh?
Homesh was one of the four northern Samaria communities Prime Minister Arik Sharon took down in conjuction with the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. Why were these communities evacuated? The best answer I got is that Sharon sought to provide the Arabs with a large area with contiguity in which they could exert a form of self-governance without pesky Jews looking over at them from the hills. The four communities were within a triangle marked by Shechem, Tulkarem and Jenin. In spite of the evaculation, the land was never given over to the Arabs and remained in Area C, that is, the region that was assigned to full Israeli control by the contract called the Oslo Accords. A military base is on the site now, just a bit higher than where the yeshiva sits.
Chomesh was named for the five ancient Israelite villages in the surrounding area, one of which was Sebastia, the ancient town of Samaria (Shomron), the capital of the northern Kingdom of Samaria.
In addition to its historical signifcance for the Jewish People, Chomesh’s specific location is particularly important strategically as the landscape photo above demonstrates. Standing there, I felt exactly the same as I had felt standing on the Golan Heights viewing the agricultural lands below as if they were in the palm of my hand. It would be so easy, were this spot to come under Palestinian Authority control, to imagine missiles being fired into the heavily populated lands below.
Between 1948 and 1967, all of Judea-Samaria was under Jordanian occupation and, as a result of the 1967 Six Day War, it was liberated by Israel. In 1978 the army expropriated about 700 dunams that were allegedly privately owned by Arabs in nearby Burqa. In 1980, a largely secular community was established there. After the second Intifada in the year 2000, many original residents left and religious families took their place. At that point, the first yeshiva was established at Chomesh. This lasted until 2005, when Sharon decided to remove the four communities.
A year following the evacuation, thousands of people made their way to the site. The man I spoke with there told me
There were ‘aliyot gdolot’ (large movements to the site) on the intermediate days of Passover, on Independence Day and over the summer. Thousands of people came to show their great love for the land. Nobody knew how, but it was clear there was a desire to return and populate the site so there would be Jewish control. With time, we wondered how we could keep a continuous presence here and we thought of the idea of a yeshiva, something that proved to be effective. We started with five students and now we are 45 who are here every day, some sleeping over continuously.
In all this time when the temporary structures have been taken down by the army and re-erected by the students, there was never any talk of giving the land to the Arabs. In 2009, the current yeshiva was established there by Rabbi Elishema Cohen. I found it interesting that just two years later, in 2011, the Arabs made their first attempt to reclaim land they claimed was theirs.
And they did not do it alone — they were represented by the Israeli leftwing NGO Yesh Din. On the official NGO website, Yesh Din describes itself as promoting interactions between Jews and Arabs in all that is concerned with law and order and equal law enforcement for members of the different religious groups in the country. But on their own website it becomes clear that they are concerned with so-called Jewish settler violence and supposed land stealing from Arabs in Judea-Samaria. Almost 95% of their 6.8-million dollar budget comes from foreign donations.
Here is the legal history: In 1978, there was an expropriation order (צו ת/4/78) in which the 700-dunam are was apparently accepted as being privately owned Arab land. I tried to get hold of the court document so that I could see on what basis the judges agreed with the defendents (the Arabs and Yesh Din). I had no luck with this. It was not online, and I had a lawyer friend look for it with his access to documents and he had no luck either. I wrote to the Justice Ministry and to several organizations, among them Yesh Din and NGOs concerned with protecting Jewish land rights in Judea-Samaria. No luck.
In 2011, descendants of those who originally claimed ownership of the land and Yesh Din petitioned the court to rescind the expropriation order. On the Yesh Din website, I did discover a link to the court decision in favour of the petitioners in 2013. Within the document, the judges refer to the land as being privately owned and support for this supposedly appears in appendices to the document. However, the appendices were not included in the linked material provided by Yesh Din. I wrote to them (twice) to request the appendices or the original expropriation decision but they did not provide the material. None of the other organizations I approached were able to locate them.
This means that, based on a case from 1978 that seems to be unavailable for public scrutiny, the leftwing anti-Israel activists can claim that the land on which Chomesh was established is privately owned Arab land. However, there is a problem with this:
One must wonder how much Yesh Din itself instigated the 2011 claims of private ownership of the land, especially given the timing of the claim (i.e., just after the establishment of the new yeshiva). But more importantly, since the Supreme Court handling land property suits for Judea-Samaria do not require the same kind of proof of ownership as a lower court would, their rulings in such matters are questionable. Without seeing the actual court documents, there is no way of knowing on what basis the 700 dunams were determined to be privately owned. After all, King Hussein of Jordan distributed state land in what he called “The West Bank” but since Jordan was an occupier, the allocation of state land to private individuals was illegal.
It could be compared to someone stealing a bicycle and then either selling it to a third party, giving the third party an official receipt to document the sale, or giving it as a gift to a third party along with a letter verifying the gift. Such exchanges do not change the fact that the bicycle was stolen property. In order to adjudicate a claim that the third party is the current legitimate owner of the bicycle, one would have to see the receipt or letter and investigate whether or not the one who sold or gave away the bicycle had a legal right to do so.
It is incomprehensible to me why I have been unable to access the court documents that would show the basis on which the land in question was said to be privately owned Arab land. Does Yesh Din have these documents and are they unwilling to share them because it may prove my assumption about Jordan correct? But if Yesh Din has these documents, why could nobody else I approached find them? I happen to know, personally, that court documents can be lost. It happened in a case in which I was involved. However, five years later, the documents were found. It requires determination and access to be able to find “lost” documents. Can any of my readers help out here?
If the land really is legitimately privately owned Arab property, we will have to deal with that fact. But if it is not, then we need to be able to counter the anti-Israel propaganda accusing us of stealing Arab land. Perhaps because of my ideological stance, I prefer to believe that the 700 dunams were state land and never belonged to any individual, Arab or otherwise. However, because it is impossible to check this out by being able to examine the court documents that should be part of the public record, I remain in an uncomfortable situation. I want to stand wholeheartedly by those who are working toward reviving Chomesh but I need to know that the land ownership issue is a non-issue in fact.
(Reposted from the author’s blog. All photos courtesy of the author)