AMONA, West Bank — Clashing with protesters and pulling tearful settlers from trailer homes, Israeli forces carried out an operation to clear out the Amona outpost Wednesday, ending years of uncertainty over the fate of the hilltop.
As of 6 p.m., 28 of the outpost’s 42 buildings had been evacuated, including some 11 families who left of their own volition, police said.
Thirteen people were arrested for disturbing the peace and obstructing police work, while hundreds more protesters were simply led by officers off the hilltop with no charges, police said.
Police said they planned to work through the night to clear out the remaining dozen-plus homes and hundreds of protesters, after briefly mulling taking a break for the night. Some 200 people were sitting in at the Amona synagogue after night fell.
Unarmed police in blue sweatshirts and black baseball caps made their way up the hill around midday. On the hilltop, home to some 40 families, hundreds of nationalist youths erected makeshift barricades out of smashed tiles, rusty metal bars and large rocks to slow their advance. Some protesters threw rocks at security forces, while others set fire to tires and trash piles.
When one vehicle full of female residents and carrying at least two of Amona’s Torah scrolls made its way out of the settlement in late afternoon, a police officer remarked that while they were leaving without force, “at this point, no one is leaving here willingly.”
Standing in the street with tears in her eyes, Ayelet Vidal, one of the residents who left on her own, said she didn’t know where she would go.
“Until the last moment I didn’t think this would happen,” she told Channel 2 news.
The evacuation ended decades of legal wrangling and political machinations over the outpost, ruled in 2014 to have been built on private Palestinian land.
Threats of clashes hung heavily over the evacuation as supporters of Amona set up makeshift roadblocks and other defenses intended to keep the army from advancing on the outpost, which was the scene of a violent melee during a partial evacuation in 2006.
About 3,000 security personnel were deployed to the operation; about 1,000 people — residents and their supporters — were estimated to be at Amona.
One border police officer at the scene said he would not take part in the evacuation. He was led away by a colleague as a protester ran alongside, praising him.
Protest organizers had told supporters to make the evacuation as difficult and long as possible, and that message was apparently taken to heart.
In a series of scuffles Wednesday, one female officer was moderately injured and 20 officers suffered light wounds, some from pushing and shoving with protesters, while the rest suffered eye and skin damage after demonstrators threw bleach and paint at them, police said.
Two protesters were lightly injured, a spokesperson for Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem said.
“This is a dark day for us, for Zionism, for the state and for the great vision of the Jewish people returning to its homeland,” Avichay Boaron, a spokesman for Amona, told Channel 2 TV.
The hundreds of protesters, most of them religious teenage boys, but also including a number of right-wing lawmakers who had flocked to the outpost ahead of the evacuation, locked themselves inside houses and sheds. Another hundred or so barricaded themselves in Amona’s synagogue. At one home, several dozen young residents and supporters linked arms, sat on the floor, and sang songs including the national anthem when police came to remove them.
When removed from Amona, some of the protesters were taken away by bus and set down at bus stations on Road 443 near Jerusalem, Channel 2 reported.
Bilha Schwarts, 24, came along with her husband and nine-month-old daughter to support the residents. “If they want it they can take it, we will not fight. We will leave but we will come back,” she told the Associated Press.
Officers injured by bleach
A small police force had been in place on the road leading up to the outpost throughout Tuesday. At approximately 8 a.m. Wednesday, they were joined by nearly 20 buses full of additional officers, along with police vans, cruisers and two ambulances.
As the hundreds of police officers disembarked from their vehicles, they were met by jeers — and some rocks — from the hundreds of protesters gathered on the hilltop.
Just after 11, the officers — a mix of Border Police and Israel Police — made their way up the hill in two straight lines, trekking alongside the road, as the street itself had been slicked with oil and was littered with rocks and caltrops.
The police moved methodically, setting up at the entrance to the outpost, before moving in those two lines deeper and deeper into the settlement.
As they approached the settlement’s houses, protesters pushed back against the approaching police lines. Small scuffles broke out, with demonstrators shouting at the officers to “be ashamed of themselves” and to not obey the evacuation order. Bleach and paint were also thrown at the officers.
The protesters screamed that the officers were “enemies of Israel” and “traitors.”
“Why are you doing this? For a salary? It’s not worth it,” one protester told an officer.
At this stage, one Border Police officer determined he could not carry out the evacuation order and left the area, flanked by other officers.
The protesters cheered the border guard, chanting “Hero! Hero!” and hugging him as he left.
Slowly, the police pushed back against the protesters and made their way to the far end of the outpost and set to work on the actual evacuation.
A dozen officers would surround an individual house or trailer. Once given the go-ahead, they would break open doors and windows that had been sealed shut.
One by one, the officers removed the protesters. Some came out on foot, while others were carried out forcibly.
Tears were shed, by the protesters themselves, and by the predominantly older settlers who were watching the events but not taking part themselves.
During this evacuation stage, there were relatively few violent incidents, as organizers encouraged protesters not to resist or lash out at the police.
After the officers removed from the protesters from the homes, they took them aside, giving them water and speaking with them calmly.
The protesters were then led to buses and driven away from Amona.
‘We lost the battle’
On Tuesday residents were given eviction notices, warning them to be out of their homes within 48 hours. The order allowed residents to file a new appeal to the IDF for a further 48-hour extension. Nevertheless, police began the evacuations a day later.
After over a decade of delays and legal wrangling, the High Court ruled in December 2014 that Amona, which lies east of Ramallah, was built on private Palestinian land and must be demolished. Nine homes in the adjacent Ofra settlement were also due to be demolished.
The eviction came ahead of the final February 8 deadline to demolish the outpost.
Yesh Din, the Israeli legal rights group that represented the Palestinian landowners in court, welcomed the evacuation. In a Facebook post, it said the landowners are “waiting to return.”
“Our feeling is indescribable,” said Abdel-Rahman Saleh, the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Silwad, who assisted the landowners in building their case. “We struggled for 20 years to get our land back.”
Shortly after the notices were given, troops began blocking off roads leading to the outpost, in a bid to keep supporters seeking to thwart the eviction order from reaching the hilltop.
Ahead of the evacuation, parents sent their children down the hill toward the adjacent Ofra settlement so that they wouldn’t be involved in the expected confrontations.
Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel joined fellow Jewish Home lawmakers Bezalel Smotrich and Shuli Muallem-Refaeli in Amona, along with Likud’s Oren Hazan.
Speaking at a Knesset debate on Wednesday, Jewish Home leader and Education Minister Naftali Bennett called the residents of Amona “heroes” and hailed their determination to remain steadfast on the windy hilltop, defying harsh conditions in their struggle to settle the Land of Israel even after it emerged that their outpost was built on private Palestinian land.
“We fought a hard fight but we were confronted with a final court order by the High Court of Justice. We came to Amona and looked the residents in the eye. We knew that we were embarking on a struggle against all odds, but we didn’t give up. Together with the residents, we turned over every stone, we explored all possibilities and exhausted all ways to save Amona,” Bennett said. “To our regret, the struggle over Amona was not successful. We lost the battle, but we will in the war over the Land of Israel.”
In a deal struck last month with the government, the outpost residents agreed to move peacefully to an adjacent plot. But the deal was complicated after a Palestinian claimed ownership of the nearby hilltop, prompting the High Court to order a stop to all work on the site. A ruling on the matter was expected from the court on Wednesday.
As part of preparation for the impending eviction, residents of Amona handed over to authorities a bag containing nonlethal weapons, police said. The bag contained stun grenades and flares, according to a police statement.
Police called on residents “to continue to show responsibility so that the court order can be carried out appropriately and to prevent the eviction turning violent.”
“This is a hard and sad day for the people of Israel,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said ahead of the evacuation.
“Despite the difficulty and the pain, I call on everyone who is still on the mountain – let the police do their job,” he said in the statement, adding that he also calls on Knesset members and public leaders to avoid statements that could “exacerbate the situation.”
Erdan says he expected the police to bring to justice anyone who acts violently.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau called on Amona residents and those who have joined them to refrain from violence against security forces.
“Evacuating a settlement and those living there arouses pain and sadness but we have an obligation to respect the law and not to use any violence towards anyone,” he said. “Everyone should act in accordance to Jewish law.”
Residents of the neighboring Ofra settlement announced that Thursday would be a “public fast day.”
The fast — a Jewish sign of mourning — is being called “over the destruction of houses and communities in the Land of Israel, a merciless and unjust [High Court] ruling, and the wantonness of elected officials.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.