In recent weeks and months, the Israeli media have been full of reports about the struggle surrounding the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona. In the latest development, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to ask the Supreme Court for a six-month delay of a December 25 deadline to demolish the outpost.
This report explains the political significance of symbolic political battle surrounding this illegal settlement which has strained Israel’s ruling far-right coalition and drawn world attention.
Amona is an outpost founded without Israeli government approval in 1995. Home to between 40 and 50 families, it is located near the major settlement of Ofra in the heart of the occupied West Bank, a little northeast of the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
Amona was one of the first outposts – illegal settlements constructed without the required government authorization in contravention of Israeli statutes regulating planning and construction. Settlers have established over 100 such settlements but around one-third have been, or are in the process of becoming. retroactively legalized. Thus, these outposts have become an important way of widening the settlement movement and expanding it even ahead of government planning.
In the case of Amona, the land grab that led to its founding was particularly egregious because it was built on privately cultivated Palestinian land belonging to residents of the villages of Silwad, Ein Yabrud and Taybeh. The land was duly registered to its owners in the official land registry, the “Tabu.” The settlers’ claim that the site was an uncultivated “rocky hilltop” has been conclusively disproved and rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court.
Ever since its founding, the outpost has faced – and staved off – repeated demolition orders. The first came in 1997, followed by another in 2003.
In 2006, over 10,000 Israeli police and soldiers arrived to carry out a court-ordered demolition. They were met by 4,000 protesters, many of whom fortified themselves inside homes or taken up positions on roofs to resist the evacuation. Over 300 people were injured in violent clashes, including some 80 security personnel. After several hours, nine buildings were demolished but 30 were left standing. A subsequent parliamentary inquiry accused the security forces of using excessive force.
In 2008, the government stated unambiguously that construction on the site was illegal and repeated its determination to demolish the outpost. It reiterated this position in 2011. The Supreme Court also ruled repeatedly that the outpost must be destroyed and the land returned to its legal owners.
In June 2014, an Israeli court awarded 300,000 shekels ($85,700) to six Palestinian land owners. In December 2014, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the state to completely evacuate and demolish the settlement within two years. The judges wrote: “These structures were built on privately owned land so there is no possibility of authorizing their construction, even retroactively. The military commander of Judea and Samaria must act decisively to protect the private property of residents who are under his protection, including protection from the usurpation of and illegal construction on their lands.”
In its latest order, the Supreme Court gave a December 25, 2016 deadline for the demolition. But the government has now decided to request yet another six-month delay.
The Amona settlers are backed by the full weight of the settlement movement – which now dominates the government. Its main patrons are Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the ultra-religious nationalist Jewish Home Party, and Ayelet Shaked, of the same party who is Minister of Justice. Thus, we have the absurd situation of the Minister of Justice working actively to subvert the rulings of the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu’s inability to enforce the legal ruling to demolish this illegal outpost against the wishes of the settlers demonstrates where power really lies in the current Israeli government – with the settlement movement.
In an attempt to find a solution that would placate the far right, Netanyahu has proposed moving the Amona residents into a new West Bank settlement to be constructed adjacent to the existing settlement of Shiloh – on territory that is closer to Jordan than to the Green Line. Removing a group of settlers from one illegal outpost has thus become a prompt to build another new settlement nearby.
The Netanyahu proposal has infuriated the US government. Both the State Department and the White House have slammed the announcement of new settlement construction in harsh terms. They view it as a flagrant example of the Israeli government actively undermining of the two-state solution. Meanwhile, Amona leaders have condemned the plan and made clear that they refuse to comply with it.
Additionally, the fate of Amona has become entangled with another struggle regarding the Palestinian West Bank village of Susya, which is also facing a demolition order.
The two cases are in no way comparable – but that has not stopped Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and other pro-settler politicians from arguing that if Amona is demolished, so must Susya be destroyed. “The free world… needs to respect our judicial system and it cannot be that it demands one thing of the Amona settlers and something else regarding what happens in Susya,”Lieberman said recently.
This ignores the fact that the 400 residents of Susya are fighting to preserve their ancestral homes against the encroachment of a Jewish settlement and an Israeli policy seeking to drive Palestinians out of the Hebron Hills, where the village is located.
In comparison, the residents of Amona are living on land blatantly stolen from Palestinians who hold full title to it – a fact established by the courts over and over again.