Amid criticism, PM claims he told aide to call off Amona evacuation — report

Military secretary Avi Blot blamed after reportedly failing to relay order to halt in time, but some don’t buy story; defense official admits army gave settlers heads-up

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Illustrative: Members of the Israeli security forces remove a caravan that settlers had brought to the former outpost of Amona on January 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Illustrative: Members of the Israeli security forces remove a caravan that settlers had brought to the former outpost of Amona on January 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

A military official may be facing a reprimand after reportedly failing to relay a message that would have halted the violent evacuation of a West Bank outpost Thursday, though some are questioning whether the move is a ploy by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to save face with settler leaders.

Col. Avi Blot only told commanders headed to the Amona outpost that Netanyahu had called off the evacuation when they were on their way to remove two mobile homes illegally installed on the West Bank hilltop Thursday morning, according to reports in the Hebrew media.

However, settler leaders questioned whether Netanyahu had actually ordered the evacuation called off, or was attempting to temper criticism against him from the right.

The evacuation Thursday morning saw dozens injured as far-right youth clashed with security forces who arrived early Thursday morning to carry out a Jerusalem District Court order to remove the caravans, installed on the site of a previously evacuated outpost. It was met by angry denunciations from the right and settler leaders, some of whom pointed fingers at Netanyahu.

It was unclear why the military would not have been able to reverse course even if troops were on their way to the outpost. The reports, which were unsourced, also did not say why Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, had decided Wednesday night that the caravans did not need to be removed after all.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) sits next to military secretary Avi Blot during a cabinet meeting on August 16, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The Prime Minister’s Office could not be reached for comment.

A defense official confirmed that Blot would appear before IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot Friday morning. According to Hadashot news, which first reported the story, Netanyahu had ordered Eisenkot to summon Blot over the apparent snafu.

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich, who was present at the installation of the two mobile homes three weeks ago as well as at their clearing early Thursday morning, said he “found the report hard to believe,” adding that the summoning appeared to have been more of an “excuse” after the fact to save face.

“If Netanyahu is telling the truth then he must rectify this mistake and today grant a permit for the transaction [of the land on which the homes were installed] and allow the construction of the agricultural farm in Amona in a legal manner. If he does not do so, I simply don’t believe him,” Smotrich tweeted.

Border Police clear several hundred settler youth who had crammed into a pair of illegally place mobile homes on the Amona outpost on January 3, 2018. (Binyamin Regional Council)

The incident came as Netanyahu has begun campaigning ahead of the April 9 elections, during which he is expected to attempt to court West Bank settlers and other right-wing voters, as he has in past elections.

An official from the Binyamin Regional Council, which facilitated the installation of the caravans last month following a spate of deadly Palestinian attacks, claimed Netanyahu had planted the story of wanting a reversal in the media in order to shunt blame for the evacuation.

He told The Times of Israel that he had reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office earlier this week and that they knew about the looming, court-ordered evacuation.

“Netanyahu sent his staff to brief reporters that he actually cares about us, and if that meant throwing his military secretary under the bus, then so be it,” the official fumed.

Questions over heads-up

Late Wednesday night, some 300 settler youths converged on the pair of mobile homes illegally installed on the West Bank hilltop where the Amona outpost once stood.

Border Police officers who carried out the evacuation said the settlers hurled stones, burned tires and thew iron bars at them. By the completion of the three-hour evacuation, 23 officers had been injured, primarily from stones hurled by the far-right activists. One officer was stabbed in the hand by a sharp object brandished by one of the teen protesters. Seven rioters were arrested and later released.

For their part, the young demonstrators claimed the border cops used excessive force in clearing the hilltop. Footage from the evacuation shows one officer kneeing a non-resisting teen in the groin outside one of the mobile homes as well as the indiscriminate spraying of teargas on the demonstrators both inside and outside the caravans.

In total, four teens were injured in the clashes, though Border Police said one of the boys was wounded after being hit by a stone thrown by one of his peers.

All 27 of the injured were released from the hospital after having received treatment for minor injuries.

Confirming a report from the Kan Public Broadcaster, a defense official who spoke with The Times of Israel acknowledged that the clashes could very well have been avoided had Central Command Chief Maj. Gen. Nadav Padan not notified the settler leaders responsible for installing the mobile homes that the army was planning on clearing the hilltop Thursday morning.

The notice gave time for the roughly 300 youth to converge on the hilltop before security forces arrived.

Amona leader Avichai Boaron, Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz, Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich and Samaria Regional Council chairman Yossi Dagan stand in front of a new caravan that was installed on the hilltop where the illegal Amona outpost once stood, on December 14, 2018. (Campaign to Save Amona)

In an apparent effort to explain Padan’s decision, the Israel Defense Forces released a statement saying that “in order to allow the voluntary evacuation of the buildings, a discussion was held with the council heads… during which a warning was issued that if the buildings were not evacuated within a period of time (of 48 hours), the security forces would seize them and evacuate them.”

The statement did not specify why the army felt it was necessary to give the settlers a heads-up, but the defense official said that in order for the Central Command to operate effectively in the West Bank, “it is best to keep the residents of Judea and Samaria (West Bank) in the loop.”

The two mobile homes were installed overnight on December 14 by a number of settler leaders, who claimed that the land on which they were placed had been legally purchased from the original Palestinian landowners.

However, they did not coordinate the installation with the state bodies and lacked the permits required to make such a move. The Haaretz daily reported Wednesday that there were considerable legal problems with the alleged purchase and that the settlers had not received permission from all of the owners of the various plots they claimed to have bought.

IDF forces seen at the illegal outpost of Amona in the West Bank on January 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Moreover, the IDF had placed a closed military zone order on the hilltop after the Amona outpost was razed two years ago.

The community was established in 1995 and demolished in February 2017 after the High Court of Justice ruled that it had been built on private Palestinian land. Last March, its evacuees moved into Amichai, the first newly constructed West Bank settlement in over 25 years. The community is located just east of the Shiloh settlement in the central West Bank.

Upon learning of state plans to take down the mobile homes on Monday, the settler group responsible for installing them petitioned the High Court of Justice to block the move. In response, the State Attorney’s Office issued a legal response that gave the squatters 48 hours to remove the mobile homes before the state would do so. That deadline expired Wednesday evening.

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