With a demolition deadline approaching, Israeli residents of Amona are preparing for the worst after the Supreme Court rejected their plea to stay. Tania Kraemer reports from the West Bank.
Until late Wednesday night, residents of Amona discussed the new government proposal for relocating them to different plots of land nearby. At the end, they rejected it, but the evacuation of the outpost, which stretches over a hill overlooking the occupied West Bank, seems inevitable.
Last month, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the state to dismantle the 50 mobile homes, including a synagogue and a playground, before December 25. The verdict followed a government appeal challenging the court's 2014 decision to order Amona's evacuation.
The Israeli government now has less than 10 days to implement the court ruling.
The relocation plan involves moving some of the families peacefully to a nearby plot of land and others to the nearby settlement of Ofra. Residents said the plan wouldn't have provided an adequate solution for all the families. If adjustments were made, they could reconsider the proposal, they said.
In Amona, the atmosphere was tense with the approaching deadline.
Dozens of supporters had already arrived in the settlement in recent days, heeding calls to come and back the residents. More arrived during the night, after rumors spread that the evacuation might be just hours away. Some had built wooden shelters to protest the demolition. Among them were many young men, some of whom were suspected to be members of the so-called "hilltop youth," a violent fringe group of young settlers.
The 'promised' land
Amona became a symbol of settler defiance ten years ago, when nine mobile homes were razed and violent clashes broke out between supporters and security forces. It is one of about 100 illegal outposts in the West Bank that was built without permission, but tolerated by the authorities.
"We are facing destruction without a real solution for real people. It is a tragedy," Amona resident Eli Greenberg told DW. Greenberg moved to Amona in 2004 with his family and has been acting as a spokesperson for the residents. "See over there, this was Amona 20 years ago," he says, pointing to a neighboring barren hill on this cold, cloudy December day. "We are here, we are part of Jewish history. We never gave up on this land. This is our land, it was promised to us."
"We hope that there will be no demolition," said Netanel Tuval from the Israeli town of Rehovot. One of his children lives in Amona. "This is a deserted area, they don't bother anyone. No Jew should be deported from here," he said.
A bit further away, in the valley, winemaker Yoram Cohen looked after his vineyard in Ofra, where some of the families were offered to relocate. "On a personal level, it is painful that they need to leave this way. But the decision of the state should be respected," Cohen said. Some are worried that the eviction could trigger violence.
Palestinians hope eviction is near
In neighboring Silwad people are simply waiting. The Palestinian village is home to some of the petitioners who set the Amona case in motion - after numerous earlier court rulings over the past 20 years.
Mariam Hammad, 82 and dressed in a traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, still remembers the days when she was able to go visit the area. "I was seven or eight years old, when I went there almost every day with my father," Hammad says. The last time she had access to the family plot was about 20 years ago. When the first settlers arrived in 1996 with their makeshift mobile homes, she didn't imagine they had come to stay. Hammad's family owns 25 dunams (2.5 hectares or 250,000 square meters) where the outpost of Amona is located today.
"Land is very important to us, we are farmers and this land belongs to our family." Now, she can only see the neighboring hilltop from the outskirts of Silwad. Along with other landowners, she petitioned the High Court of Justice or Israel's Supreme Court. She has been waiting since the court ruled in their favor in 2014.
"They always say the landowners are absent. But we are here. The landowners are here," she says with a firm voice.
The Palestinian petitioners are supported by Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights organization based in Tel Aviv. "Amona is a clear cut-case of land theft. There is no argument that all the lands in Amona are private Palestinian-registered land, and this is land that was stolen 20 years ago from Palestinian landowners," says Gilad Grossman, Yesh Din's spokesperson. "The right thing to do, as the High Court has already ordered, is to evacuate the illegal outpost of Amona."
On the other side, on top of the hill, Eli Greenberg has his doubts when it comes to claims of ownership and the High Court (Supreme court?) ruling.
"They didn't file a complaint or ask for their property for years. Only when the left-wing Yesh Din supported them, they suddenly went to court," Greenberg says, sitting in the mobile home where he and his wife and children live. When the outpost was built, in 1996, the hilltop was barren and there was land wasn't farmed, he says.
One of his neighbors, Nachum Schwarz, recalls a bare hill, too. He was one of the first to move to the hilltop in 1996 and helped to establish Amona. "It didn't take long until we were connected to the sewage system and the electrical grid," says Schwarz, who raises sheep on a small farm. At that time, the settlers say, the government was indirectly supporting their endeavor - unlike today, when many in Amona feel their government has failed them.
A test case for the Israeli government
Amona has become a contentious issue for the Israeli government. For weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been promising solutions.
"We must act responsibly and prudently here for a common goal: to defend the settlement and to defend the court," he told his cabinet in early December.
In order to show support for the settler community, the government promoted new legislation that could prevent such cases in the future. The so-called "regulation bill," which was pushed by the Jewish Home and the Likud parties, could retroactively legalize outposts like Amona which are built or partly built on privately-owned Palestinian land. Palestinians who claim land in these areas could receive financial compensation.
While right-wing and settlement supporters hail the bill, others warn that Israel's international standing could be at stake. Israeli human rights organizations say the consequences for a two-state solution could be dramatic.
"We are looking at 54 outposts that could be retroactively legalized through this bill," says Anat Ben Nun, spokesperson for Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement monitoring organization. As a result, those "outposts could turn into official settlements with official planning, which would then have the ability to expand."
The international community considers both settlements and outposts illegal and contrary to international law. Settlements are seen as one of the main obstacles to the creation of a Palestinian state.
Regulation bill causes international concern
The regulation bill has also prompted widespread criticism from the international community. "If ratified, it would constitute a breach of international law," said Nickolay Mladenov, UN special envoy in Jerusalem. The US State Department said its passing would represent an "unprecedented and troubling step that is inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinion." And Germany stated early on that it was highly concerned. The bill has already passed the first reading in the Knesset but it requires two more full readings to actually become law. It is unclear when the next readings will be scheduled. The bill is expected to face legal challenges from Israel's High Court.
In Amona, the debate about the new legislation has left a bitter aftertaste. By the time the bill went to the Knesset, it had been revised numerous times, and Amona was left out. One of Netanyahu's senior coalition partners, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu), had refused to support the bill if it did not respect the High Court decision.
Amona residents like Eli Greenberg feel betrayed. "We are basically saying to them. Take a step back and push Amona back into the bill. Push the bill as hard as you can, there is no reason why not to," says Greenberg. "We demand to be treated as citizens in the state of Israel. If my son is going to the army, if am paying taxes, I should be sitting here [in Amona] not the Arabs."