Amid clashes and pleading by residents, Israeli police on Wednesday began the forcible evacuation of the Amona outpost in the West Bank. Although the government has promised more settler homes, the rift is set to deepen.
"This is our promised land. It belongs to us. It is a very difficult day," said Meir, a young Israeli, leaning out of a window of a mobile home in the settlement outpost of Amona. Behind him, a group of young men are busy preparing for the police to enter the house at any moment. Like Meir, most of them came to Amona in recent weeks to support the 42 settler families living on this hilltop and to protest their court-ordered eviction.
"We don't see how a Jew can take another Jew away from this land," said Meir, who didn't want to be further identified. In the freezing cold, the mostly young protesters had barricaded themselves inside mobile homes. By midday, different police units, without heavy riot gear, were slowly moving into the outpost. The main street leading up to the hilltop settlement was covered in slippery oil and nails, apparently to keep the security forces away.
An eviction order was issued on Tuesday, calling on the residents to leave within 48 hours. "Shame on you," protesters shouted at the officers, while others pleaded with them to ignore the orders. In other places, scuffles broke out. Protesters had put up barricades with rocks and old chairs, tires burned and stones were thrown at the security forces. "We have 3,000 police officers involved in the area. All the units have been preparing for weeks for this operation," Micky Rosenfeld, press spokesman for the Israeli police, told DW. "We are working carefully and cautiously to make sure the area is evacuated based on the court order that was made." In 2006, when nine homes in Amona were demolished, hundreds of protesters and police were hurt in fierce clashes.
Amona – a longstanding legal battle
The demolition of Amona has been in the making for over a decade. In 2014, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that Amona was built on private Palestinian land. Palestinian landowners from neighboring villages had petitioned the High Court to claim their land. In Silwad, some of the Palestinian landowners were looking forward to this day. But the question remains whether they can actually return. "It was a difficult day for everybody," says Gilad Grossman, spokesman of Yesh Din, the Israeli human rights group representing them in court. "But when we filed the petition in 2008, our goal was to let them return to their land and we hope that this will now happen."
Amona is one of the largest of about 100 "unauthorized" settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank. Outposts are built without permission, but usually tolerated by the government. Most of the international community considers the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to be illegal and an obstacle to peace. With the first eviction deadline approaching on December 25 last year, the government announced it had reached a deal with the residents and promised that 24 families could move to a plot nearby. Others would be hosted in the nearby settlement of Ofra. In return, the families pledged to leave peacefully. However, the move to an adjacent plot was again challenged by Yesh Din. Palestinians claimed ownership of this plot as well. On Wednesday evening, the High Court accepted the petition, effectively cancelling the agreement.
Government vow more settlement building
Amona has proved to be a big challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government. In an apparent move to appease the angry settler community, the government announced plans late Tuesday to build 3,000 more settler homes in the occupied West Bank. In addition, the so-called "Legalization Bill," which was sponsored by the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, might also be up for a vote in the Knesset next week. The highly controversial bill could retroactively legalize outposts like Amona, although it is likely that the High Court might strike it down. Throughout the day, right wing politicians called it a "difficult day" and vowed more settlement building in return.
But the political promises did not seem to temper the anger among residents and protesters. "Everybody who came here wants to stress the deep connection between the people of Israel and this land," says Zvi Sukkot, who said he coordinated the protesters. The 26-year old said most people were deeply disappointed with the government. "We are here to protest loudly because the Israeli government is destroying a Jewish community in the land of Israel."
The sentiment of betrayal was echoed by others in the outpost. By the evening, over half of the 42 families were evacuated, according to the police, some by force, while others left voluntarily. Dozens of police and protesters sustained light injuries. In Amona, the settlers remained defiant. "We just want to tell the world – it won't be easy for you," said one of the protesters. "Next time, don't do it. Think again before you do it."