An American student killed in a terror attack last month was on his way to do community service at an illegal West Bank outpost, Haaretz has found, adding to the mounting questions about what precautions are taken by study abroad programs in Israel when their participants travel to particularly dangerous areas.
An investigation by Haaretz reveals that Ezra Schwartz and his classmates had been sent regularly by the yeshiva to an illegal West Bank outpost to fulfill their program’s community service requirements, and were on one such trip when they were attacked in the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements.
Rabbi Gotch Yudin, the head of Yeshivat Ashreinu, the program attended by Schwartz and the five other students wounded in the attack, declined to respond to questions about the incident.
On November 20, Schwartz, a native of Sharon, Massachusetts, and a group of his classmates, were targeted in a drive-by shooting by a Palestinian terrorist at the Gush Etzion junction, the site of numerous attacks in recent weeks. They were traveling in a van rented from a local Beit Shemesh taxi company to a park established in memory of three Israeli teens kidnapped and murdered in the summer of 2014 while hitchhiking in the area. That incident was one of the triggers of the Gaza war that broke out later that summer.
As part of their community service requirements, the American yeshiva students had travelled to the memorial site at least twice to help clean and beautify it. Initial accounts of the terror attack had reported that the students were on their way to distribute food to soldiers in the area, but in the days after the incident, Yudin clarified to Haaretz that they had been on their way to the park. At the time, he said the students also visited the site before the Sukkot holiday.
Oz v’Gaon, the name of the memorial site, is an illegal outpost, as Haaretz has learned, against which 18 demolition orders have been issued by the Ministry of Defense. According to Dror Etkes, the founder and director of Kerem Navot, an Israeli non-profit that monitors settlement activities, it is one of three outposts set up without permission from the Civil Administration, which has jurisdiction over the West Bank soon after the bodies of the three Israeli teens were discovered.
“The other two have already been dismantled, and this is the only one still around,” he said. “Of the more than 100 illegal outposts in the West Bank, this is most probably the newest.”
A spokeswoman for Masa, the group that oversees the program attended by Schwartz, declined to comment on the revelations.
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