SILWAD, West Bank — After witnessing a decade-long legal battle end in apparent victory, with the evacuation this week of the West Bank outpost Amona, the mayor of the adjacent Palestinian town has set his sights on a new target.
“We are now going to evacuate the settlers from Ofra,” said Abdul Rahman Saleh, the mayor of Silwad. “I am preparing to get all the documents to give the Israeli High Court,” he said, terming it a “very good court.”
But he’s likely to face a far stiffer, if not impossible, challenge with Ofra, northeast of Ramallah. “It will take time, but I will try,” he said, speaking to The Times of Israel in his office on Thursday.
Ofra, which overlooks Amona, is legal under Israeli law. While there is precedent for the High Court to order the demolition of homes deemed to have been built on private Palestinian land within the bounds of state-sanctioned settlements, including in Ofra itself, it has only issued such orders in cases where the homes were built without a state permit on land that the military hasn’t declared a military zone.
Gilad Grossman, the spokesperson for Yesh Din, the Israeli rights group that led the court battle for the Palestinian landowners of Amona, said he was not privy to the mayor’s plans to challenge land ownership in Ofra. But he claimed that “at least half” of the settlement, which is home to around 3,500 residents, is built on private Palestinian land.
Ofra itself began on land confiscated by the IDF. But the settlement, founded in 1975 on the site of an old Jordanian army base, has expanded beyond the military zone and on to land claimed as private Palestinian property. Still, almost all of the homes in the settlement are legal by Israeli law, having been approved by the government, which makes it highly unlikely the court would challenge them.
There are currently nine buildings in Ofra that are slated for demolition by February 8 following a 2008 petition by Yesh Din that the court ruled on last February. Those homes, unlike the rest of Ofra, were built without a permit, and thus do not possess the same legal status.
A 2008 report by another Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, said some 60 percent of the built-up area of Ofra lies on land that is registered to Palestinians. The alleged private lands included in settlements like Ofra and Amona are found in the Jordanian land registry, which Israel adopted after it captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War.
Settlers cast doubt on the legitimacy of the registry, saying the land was haphazardly doled out by then Jordanian King Abdullah, who ruled the West Bank from 1948 to 1967.
Saleh, the Silwad mayor, said that if Israel withdrew to behind its West Bank security barrier — where most of the settlements are — there could be peace.
“The land for these settlers is behind the wall,” he said. “I think all my people want to make peace with Israel. If they want to make one nation with Palestinians and Israelis, fine, I agree. But everything should be split fairly.”
A day earlier, he had sounded much more combative, telling the Palestinian Al Quds News Network that Amona residents “should return to Europe, where they originally come from.” The comments were widely reported in Israel, and drew condemnations from politicians.
But on Thursday, he expressed regret over how those remarks were construed in Israel.
Aharon Lipkin, a spokesperson for Ofra, said that while he didn’t know enough about Saleh’s plan to petition the court to provide a specific response, Ofra residents would welcome such a move because it would force Israel to change its attitude toward what it now calls “disputed” lands in the West Bank.
“To a certain degree it would be great if he did this,” he said.
Lipkin acknowledged that there are homes in Ofra built on lands with the same status as the homes built by the settlers and evacuated this week in Amona.
“If Israel does not find a solution to the status of lands like these, which exist in a number of other settlements as well, then there will be far more petitions,” he said.
The Israeli government has been advancing legislation to retroactively legalize outposts in order to preempt evacuation orders from the court. The Jewish Home party is also seeking to annex settlements in the West Bank, starting with Ma’ale Adumim.
Battle over Amona lands unfinished
While the Silwad mayor was keen on moving on to the next court case, some in his town were skeptical whether the battle over Amona was really over.
After Amona was founded, the farming area around the hilltop became inaccessible to Palestinians who owned the land.
Palestinian villagers who owned farming land in or around the settlement have not been given permission by the Israeli army to begin working the land, and it is unclear when or whether that permission will be given.
“It’s more important that we can use the lands, not that the settlement is evacuated,” said one resident of Silwad, who asked to remain anonymous.
Mariam Hammad, 83, was one of the residents of Silwad who successfully claimed lands at Amona.
“From the day they took it, I had a gut feeling and faith in God I would return. The mayor, lawyers and court gave me more confidence,” she said. “This land is mine by right. When I went to the Supreme Court, I only demanded my right. I didn’t take anything from anyone,” she added.
Kareem Shehada, a resident of Silwad who resides for part of the year in the US, said his father owns land in Ofra, but he never thought of getting it back.
“As individuals, we were powerless. There was nothing you could do about it,” he said.
While he wasn’t sure if he would try to petition the court over what he said was his father’s land, Shehada was far more concerned about people in the region living together peacefully.
“I wish Palestinian and Israelis could live in one country in peace,” said Shehada, noting that his father, who used to work in Haifa, had very close Jewish friends.