From This Hill, You Can See the Next Intifada

What happens when Israel’s lawbreakers become lawmakers

A man stands on a hillside with a young boy, pointing into the distance
A view of the Israeli illegal settlement Evyatar in Beita village of Nablus, West Bank, on February 8, 2022 (Issam Rimawi / Anadolu Agency / Getty)

It’s a little after 8 p.m. on a frigid hill in the West Bank village of Beita, and Sa’ed Hamayyel is sitting in front of a crackling outdoor fire, his face framed by smoke, telling me how his son was killed. “He was 16 years old,” the Palestinian father says. “He was a student.” On June 11, 2021, Israeli soldiers “shot him from afar … He couldn’t have posed any threat to them.”

Hamayyel is intimately familiar with the violence and loss that pervades this part of the world. Decades ago, his father, brother, and sister were all killed in combat with Israeli forces. Along with them, Hamayyel is claimed as a member by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an internationally designated terrorist group responsible for numerous attacks on civilians. But when his son Mohammed was killed, the teenager was not engaged in armed conflict. He was protesting an Israeli outpost called Evyatar, which overlooks Beita.

Although few Israelis could pinpoint Evyatar on a map, and although its existence is illegal under Israel’s own law, this tiny settlement is set to play a large role in the new Israeli government’s plans and the future of Israel and the West Bank. The reason for this is math.

The country’s new governing coalition is composed of six parties that together received just 48.4 percent of the vote. But rather than moderate the coalition’s ambitions, the fragility of this arrangement has empowered its most extreme elements, because they have become essential to the government’s continued existence. Just as U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy must now rely on the backing of radicals such as Marjorie Taylor Greene to maintain his perilous perch atop a narrow Republican majority, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu depends on his coalition’s far-right flank to maintain his precarious position atop Israeli politics.

And that flank has plans for Beita and Evyatar—plans that threaten to reverberate far beyond the two enclaves, and potentially upend the tenuous balance of power that has held for almost two decades between Israel and the Palestinians across the West Bank.

Getting to Beita from Jerusalem is not easy. Only the most committed travelers venture to the village from Israel, past the military checkpoints and into an area with steep mountain roads and sketchy cellular service. But I went there in December because what began in Beita won’t end there.

Observed up close, Beita’s story is about a small number of people whose lives have crossed paths in a single spot on the map. But viewed from a distance, the village’s experience also reflects broader geopolitical trends that will shape the region for years to come. To understand why, one has to grasp what happened there over two months in 2021.

The name Beita derives from the Arabic word bayt, meaning “home.” Its residents long took pride in the fact that Israeli settlers had never encroached upon the land surrounding the village. But in May 2021, that changed. In response to the murder of a 19-year-old Israeli student by a Palestinian assailant at a nearby bus stop, a handful of Jewish families erected a makeshift outpost on the hilltop next to Beita. They named it Evyatar, after another Israeli, Evyatar Borovsky, who had been killed at the very same bus junction in 2013. Israeli settlers had attempted to build on this spot before—in 2013, 2016, and 2018—but each time, the Israeli authorities promptly dismantled the illicit edifices and removed their residents. This time, with Netanyahu desperate to keep the far right in his corner while facing repeated elections and a corruption trial, the Israeli government hesitated.

Beita’s residents did not. Fearful of what might happen should the outpost become permanent, they launched relentless protests against it. Every evening, participants burned tires so that the smoke wafted into the settlement. They blasted music, shot fireworks, threw stones, shone laser pointers at the buildings to disrupt residents’ sleep, and generally sought to make life miserable for Evyatar’s inhabitants. They also erected and burned an effigy of a swastika inside a star of David. Participants I interviewed emphasized that not a single bullet was fired during these demonstrations, a claim backed by contemporaneous media accounts. But there are forms of violence that don’t involve firearms, including explosives and firebombs, which is how the settlement would later be set on fire. The Israeli army was quickly dispatched to separate the protesters and the small group of settlers. Weeks later, several residents of the village were dead by Israeli bullets and hundreds more had been injured in clashes with the soldiers. One of the casualties was Mohammed Hamayyel. But despite these losses—or perhaps because of them—the protests persisted.

In June 2021, a new anti-Netanyahu coalition of Jews and Arabs took power in Israel. In July, they did what Netanyahu had not and evacuated the outpost, while leaving its buildings intact. As part of a compromise that enabled the settlers to save face and leave quietly, Israeli authorities suggested that the residents might eventually return at some indefinite point in the future. But under the old Israeli government, they never did. There was, after all, no benefit to Israel in having its soldiers face off every evening with incensed Palestinians over a tiny outpost that Israel itself considered illegal.

A year and a half later, the wounds remain raw. Israeli authorities insist that the nightly rallies were riots, and far from nonviolent. The villagers still mourn and valorize those they lost; murals dedicated to those killed during the demonstrations line the streets. But however you parse the exact details, one thing is certain: If Evyatar had not been there, there would have been no protests, and Sa’ed Hamayyel’s son would still be alive.

A mural in Beita depicting those killed during the demonstrations against Evyatar.
A mural in Beita depicting those killed during the demonstrations against Evyatar (Yair Rosenberg)

Here is why Beita and Evyatar matter: Both the Israeli settlement movement and its Palestinian opponents see the conflict over this small strip of land as a model for the future of the entire region—but for very different reasons.

For the settlers, Evyatar may be illegal, but it is not an accident. It is part of a deliberate effort to bisect the area of Nablus, a West Bank commercial and cultural hub, and foreclose the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state. One can see this quite clearly on a map: Evyatar completes a circuit of settlements dotting the region.

Evyatar’s own Facebook page openly declares the outpost’s intent to “disrupt contiguity between Qabalan, Yatma, and Beita,” three Palestinian villages. And this desire is shared by powerful people in Israel’s new government, whose coalition agreements include a commitment to repopulate Evyatar.

Israeli coalition agreements, like American political-party platforms, are not legally binding and are often observed in the breach. But newly minted far-right Israeli ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir have deep personal ties to individuals with designs on the West Bank’s most incendiary spots—especially those that have been deemed illegal by Israeli authorities. Until November’s election, the people seeking to settle places like Evyatar were fringe lawbreakers. Now they are lawmakers. The fact that few Israelis have even heard of these areas does not mean that this new government will not expend political capital on them. And it does not mean that the repopulation of these outposts won’t spark another round of Israeli-Palestinian conflagrations.

One might think that a revived Evyatar would spell disaster for Beita, but that’s not entirely how the protesters I spoke with see it. To them, it would also be an opportunity—a chance to turn Beita into a beacon of defiance for the rest of the West Bank.

Sitting in the living room of Majdi Hamayyel (no direct relation to Sa’ed Hamayyel), a local Palestinian activist and political analyst who’d served 12 years in Israeli prison, I asked what would happen if the residents of Evyatar returned. “If even a single settler enters the outpost, at that moment, you will find the whole of Beita marching on the mountain again,” he replied, as children flitted in and out of the room. Israel, he argued, had removed the settlers because it feared that others in the West Bank might be inspired by Beita’s popular protests. Reversing course would only bring the demonstrations back stronger. “You will see a reenactment of the same experience that the occupation itself was so worried would spread that [the Israeli military] cleared the settlers in the first place.”

In other words, if Evyatar represents the ambitions of an empowered Israeli settler movement, the Beita protests against it represent the response of an ascendant Palestinian opposition. And this opposition does not look like what came before. The village’s organic anti-occupation activities—untethered to any political movement or faction—reflect the slow-motion collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which would once have been expected to lead such efforts, but whose rapid erosion has left a vacuum that is being filled by unrest and violence.

“What is happening right now is that the Palestinian decision is in the hands of the resistance and not in the hands of the PA,” Majdi Hamayyel told me. “The question is whether the occupation is ready for the destabilization that is now ahead of us.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s leader, turned 87 in November, and recently began the 18th year of his four-year presidential term. Widely perceived as corrupt, he remains in power by dint of his suppression of critics, control over the Authority’s substantial purse strings, and ties to the international community. In recent years, however, Abbas has had several health scares, disappearing from public view for significant stretches. With his departure from the scene only a matter of time, many have already begun jostling for influence in the post-Abbas world.

New militias of young Palestinians have emerged and challenged the authority of the PA’s security forces, while long-standing armed groups ranging from the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to the religious Islamic Jihad have stepped up their activities. The result has been near-daily violent confrontations with Israeli forces from Jenin to Nablus. Late last month, nine Palestinians were killed during a firefight between Islamic Jihad militants and Israeli commandos in Jenin, prompting a volley of rocket fire from Gaza. The next day, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem opened fire near a local synagogue, killing seven Israelis on the eve of the Sabbath. As the PA’s influence and relevance continue to recede, violence is escalating.

Indeed, if there’s one thing that many Palestinians and the ascendant Israeli far right agree on, it’s that the PA has to go. “As long as the Palestinian Authority encourages terror and is an enemy, I have no interest for it to continue to exist,” declared Smotrich, the pro-settler lawmaker, in a January press conference announcing economic sanctions against the organization. “It’s obvious that the PA enforces Israel’s interest, not only through security coordination, but also by frustrating efforts of resistance,” said Majdi Hamayyel, the political analyst. The PA’s troubles have become so pronounced that in late December, Hussein al-Sheikh, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was caught on tape lamenting Abbas’s failure to manage the transition from his own leadership.

Beita was ahead of the curve in rejecting the PA. For decades, its mayor was appointed by the Authority. But in 2005, the village held its first election, and the rival Hamas candidate won. The result proved to be a harbinger for the following year’s Palestinian national elections, in which Hamas beat Abbas’s Fatah, ultimately precipitating the current split between the West Bank and Gaza. Today, some in the village hope to again serve as a vanguard, this time in challenging Israel’s new government and modeling a response that will ignite the West Bank.

“The price will be very, very high,” said Sa’ed Hamayyel, the father of the slain son, as we sat around the fire that night. “Not just for us.”