AMONA, West Bank — There’s a lookout point at the top of the long ridge on which the outpost of Amona rests, a circular, red-painted deck that groans in the constant wind. Standing here in the morning, some 900 meters above sea level, one can see the deceptively appealing sheen of the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley and the white-stone outskirts of Jerusalem.
This is one of the reasons people live here – the settlement, dotted with olive and fruit trees and draped along the hilltop, is situated in a lovely spot. Children not yet three years old walk alone to nursery school. The breeze in summer is constant and cool and the bright playground toys are set on a field of healthy grass.
The other reason is also hinted at on the lookout tower. Painted on the south-facing plexiglass display, in the direction of Jerusalem, there is a window. Underneath it are the words: The Temple, can you see it?
Well, no. Not yet. But what you can see, to the southwest, is a barren hilltop, beyond which lay the orderly, unattractive row houses of the new and temporary Migron – a neighboring outpost, much like Amona, that was forced off that hilltop in September and corralled, tightly, along the shoulder of a nearby hill, overlooking a gas station.
A somewhat similar fate may await Amona. It depends whom you believe.
There are in Amona, the West Bank’s largest outpost, three sorts of contested land plots, constituting the vast majority of the property: those that are Palestinian owned, as recorded in the registry, but no legal owner can be located; those that are privately owned, by a known individual who has petitioned the High Court of Justice, but have allegedly since been purchased by settler groups; and those that are privately owned, by a known individual who appealed to the court, and have not been purchased.
In Silwad – the village where Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal was born – Palestinians claim their families once grew grapes and other crops on the land, and that it was stolen from them by teenagers from Ofra
On July 18, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he has adopted a minimalist interpretation of the High Court of Justice’s longstanding and somewhat ambiguous evacuation orders: only one mobile home, on Plot 110, and two stretches of asphalt, one leading to the outpost from the adjacent settlement of Ofra and one within the community, all located on privately owned Palestinian land not purchased by settlers, are to be removed, he determined.
The deadline for removal was Wednesday, July 24, and was largely met. The family living on Plot 110, with its five children and a mother who is due to give birth in the coming days, has been moved to a different plot. The road within Amona has been torn up. The road leading to the Ofra settlement will be removed by local work crews, a member of the community council told The Times of Israel, and has already been replaced by an unpaved road that links Ofra and Amona.
Yesh Din, the organization that helped the Palestinian claimants file suit, asked the High Court of Justice to hold Weinstein in contempt of court for his decision; spokeswoman Reut Mor called it “outrageous.” The Court gave the state until July 29 to respond.
If Weinstein’s interpretation is upheld, the status of the remainder of the property and the nature of the acquisitions – land purchases in the West Bank being a most murky affair – will be determined by a Jerusalem Magistrate Court.
“The process itself could take years,” said Amona resident and community council member Eli Greenberg, a doctoral student of history at Bar Ilan University and a father of “almost” eight children.
He suggested that the Palestinian claims were based on myth and gauzy imagination and that the Palestinian appellants to the court were either not the rightful owners or had good reason to lie about sales. “The Palestinian Authority is the only place in the world where the sale of land to Jews is a capital offense,” he said.
The Secretary of Ofra, Sami Karsenti, asserted that “proof of sale has been handed over to the Jerusalem Magistrate Court.” He said that the acquisitions had taken place in recent weeks and months, but when asked to be more specific, he raised his hands and said “I don’t want to address this.”
Palestinian claimants from the village of Silwad – two brothers and a 77-year-old woman – claimed that the land on which Amona sits has been in their hands for years, that they wouldn’t dream of selling it, that their families once grew grapes and other crops on the land, and that it was stolen from them by teenagers from Ofra, in two caravans, protected by a group of gun-carrying guards.
The truth, if there is one definitive version, in not close at hand. Recent visits to both Silwad and Amona reveal two drastically different narratives, clashing against the back drop of an attorney general, and a government, that seemingly want nothing more than for the issue to disappear, buried in court for as long as possible, as the future of the region is dictated either by US-led negotiations or the inexorable settlement growth on the ground.
The first stop on a recent tour of the region was at Psagot Winery’s restaurant and tasting room. Looking out the window at the new Migron and beyond at the Palestinian villages on the surrounding ridges, Binyamin Local Council Spokeswoman Miri Maoz Ovadia affably told a gaggle of reporters, “that’s Jba’, a Palestinian community named after the Second Temple-period priestly city of Geva” – a town mentioned in the same verse in the book of Joshua as Amona, the only town to be called a “kfar,” or village, in the Hebrew Bible and strangely translated in the King James version as “Chepharhaammonai.”
Today, there are 40 families and 170 children in Amona. That growth has been facilitated by the state
She spoke not of settlements but of communities and noted that of the 63,000 Jewish residents within the Binyamin regional council of which Amona is part, half are under the age of 21. The growth rate, she said, is eight percent. These figures are significant. The greater the numbers, the more hills topped with red roofs, the greater the difficulty of relinquishing land as part of a peace deal.
Former Settler (Yesha) Council head and current Minister of Economy and Trade Naftali Bennett said already in June that with, by his count, 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank and an additional 300,000 in east Jerusalem, the very notion of partition and a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River should promptly and forever be banished. Others, such as former MK Yaakov Katz, put the magic number at one million, attainable within four years and by which point, he said last year, the “revolution will have been completed.”
That goal could feasibly be attained before the Jerusalem Magistrate Court is able to unravel the secrets of land sales, which include, among other things, a settlement organization called al-Wattan, meaning homeland in Arabic, and therefore seen as a legitimate buyer to Palestinians, or at least legitimate enough to claim ignorance; a law permitting capital punishment within the Palestinian Authority for those who sell land to Jews; an array of middlemen on the Israeli side, operating with collaborators on the Palestinian side in order to cover the tracks of the true buyers; Palestinian crooks who claim to own property that is not theirs and then sell to Israelis (in the West Bank the land registry papers are classified); and fraudulent papers assembled by settler leaders in order to buy time, as seems to have been the case in Migron.
In Silwad, situated several miles from Amona and home to 15,000 residents, community leaders and appellants to the court completely rejected any notion of sales to Jews.
In a high-ceilinged room, under a hardly rotating fan, Mariam Hammad, 77, described her feeling when she first saw new residents on the 20 dunam of land she claims as her own. “When I first saw them coming I wished that I could die,” she said with the help of a translator.
She said that a villager was later killed on the outskirts of the outpost, further preventing her from approaching – a claim that was later retracted and revised to the year 1982 – and that “even if they filled up this room with money I would not sell my land. The land is like the soul. It cannot be sold.”
Atallah and Kheir Hamed, fellow natives of Silwad – the town where Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal was born – said that their land on the hilltop was currently being used to house five families. Until the founding of Amona, Atallah Hamed said, he would harvest grapes every year and sell them for up to 3,000 Jordanian dinars ($4,200). When the first settlers arrived they set fire to the crops, he said, and then set down caravans.
Mor called the development and growth of all outposts “a system” meant to strip Palestinians from their land.
The settlers tell a different story. According to the construction arm of the settlement movement, Amana, which almost never speaks with the press but did publish an article about the founding of Amona in 2006, the first settlers – two unmarried young women from Ofra – moved up to the hilltop during the Sukkot holiday of 1996.
They lived in mobile homes and were guarded by a group of bachelors from Ofra. A longtime resident of Amona told The Times of Israel that there was no sign of cultivation at all on the hilltop and that they had not simply moved there on account of the breeze but also because they had seen the Jewish Agency’s settlement wing’s plans, which indicated that the hilltop was designated for future settlement.
One year later, there were 10 young adults, three families and three children living on the hilltop. Today, there are 40 families and 170 children in Amona.
That growth has been facilitated by the state. Talia Sasson, the author of a government-commissioned report on the outposts, submitted in 2005, found that the Housing Ministry alone had poured over two million shekels (some $550,000) into the outpost, funneled through the established settlement of Ofra. Former Yesha Council head Dani Dayan said during a recent briefing that Amona “was established by the government” and that the tale that it was some sort of piratic endeavor “is an urban legend.” He went on to say that the pretense of ignorance is something “that the government preferred” to convey for its own purposes.
In fact, Israel’s civil administration, the IDF-run governing body within the West Bank, knew already 20 days after the first caravans were set on the ground that the land was privately owned. According to a recent report by Army Radio correspondent Ido Benbaji – a teenage soldier, currently in conscripted service – soldiers working for the civil administration issued evacuation orders at the time, and then, after temporarily rescinding them, wrote that “a new date for the carrying out of the evacuation orders will be delivered in the future.”
Years passed, the outpost grew, and no new date was set. “We warned several times about the illegality of that place,” Brig. Gen. (res) Dov Zedaka, the commander of the civil administration from 1998-2003, told Benbaji. “But our arguments were generally rejected at the governmental echelon because the settlement enterprise managed to convince the governmental echelon that they were in the process of purchasing the lands of Amona.”
In July 2005, Peace Now filed suit on behalf of 10 Palestinians, who claimed that nine permanent houses, made of Jerusalem stone, had been erected on their land. The High Court of Justice ordered the buildings destroyed and, on February 1, 2006, the newly appointed prime minister, Ehud Olmert, sent 7,000 police and army troops to the area to demolish the homes.
The evacuation, in which hundreds were injured, including former MKs Effi Eitam and Aryeh Eldad, was carried out in a matter of hours. By nightfall, all nine homes had been demolished. But the images of resistance and police violence – quite different from the passivity depicted during the Disengagement from Gaza – have endured, and residents of Amona, among others, believe that the stand taken there that day continues to play a pivotal role in the state’s attitude toward the outpost.
Eli Greenberg, who aside from working on a doctoral thesis about one of the Dead Sea Scrolls also runs an in-line hockey program in Jerusalem, said the outpost had “become a symbol.” He went so far as to say that it was at Amona, after the Disengagement, that some of the youth believed that they asserted that the Jewish residents of the West Bank will not “go like sheep to the slaughter.”
And in fact, there have not been any significant forced evacuations in the West Bank since that day in February 2006. The residents of Migron, seeking to avoid trauma, left of their own accord last year.
Nonetheless, the future remains shrouded in doubt. One resident, who refused to allow his name to be used, said he was an optimist with experience – a pessimist – but that even so he was certain that his grandchildren would yet frolic in Amona.
Dani Dayan suggested that when facing an adversary, the Israeli Left, whose most devoted members were willing to do no more “than press ‘Like’ on a Haaretz article,” there was little doubt that the settlers, “the most devoted” group in the region, would prevail.
Sitting in the shade of her yard, alongside their family-run winery in Amona, Tamar Nizri, a mother of eight children, said her strategy for dealing with the uncertainty was to banish it from her mind. “I prefer not to think about it,” she said.
There have not been any significant forced evacuations in the West Bank since the violent confrontations at Amona in February 2006
Nizri missed the violent confrontation in 2006, working at the time in Goa, in India, at a hospitality house for Jews, but said she was “very disturbed” by the fact that the residents of Migron left their outpost of their own accord. In the future, she said, “it has to be very clear that Jewish communities are not going to be quietly evacuated.”
Nizri came to Ofra after high school in Jerusalem, met her husband, married him during his army service and moved up to Amona. “We did not come for ideology,” she said. “It was just natural. There were nice people and it felt good here.”
She said that Palestinians play little to no role in her daily life in Amona. “Arabs, they are like a dream,” she said, noting that she had not seen an Arab in the outpost in 15 years.
Instead, she and others in the settlement, when looking ahead, are more concerned with “enemies from within.”
One resident, in fact the man who lived until days ago on Plot 110, seated outside the synagogue and looking west toward the Arab village of Ein Yabroud, said he felt as though he were sitting on the deck of a ship and others – Yesh Din – were busy drilling holes in the hull.
Greenberg, though, speaking as the July 24 deadline arrived, was pleased with the state of affairs – only one mobile home removed from a single plot of land and several yards of torn up asphalt. “If it ends with this, then we got off easy,” he said. “There’s a chance that all of this will soon be behind us.”