Have Amona ‘refugees’ found a recipe for post-evacuation success?

Despite over 7 months in a cramped Ofra dorm, the 42 families evacuated from an illegal outpost are poised for a better fate than those of past razed settlements

OFRA, West Bank — Elad Ziv had little to show for the seven-plus months his family has spent living in dormitory-style housing in the settlement of Ofra.

But standing wedged between two bunk beds in a narrow 10-by-13-foot bedroom that doubles as an office space and storage closet, Ziv spoke proudly of the sacrifices made by his family and the 41 others evacuated from the illegal Amona outpost in February, after the High Court of Justice ruled that it had been built on private Palestinian land. 

“I don’t regret living in Amona. It was an honor,” said the 47-year-old father of seven. “My kids grew up in the mud and thorns. Not surrounded by potted plants.”

Wearing a kippa that engulfed the entire top of his head, Ziv spoke of how the residents of the evacuated outpost had been “righteously” serving “in the first line of fire” since the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, which he said threatened the future of Israeli control over the biblical land of Israel across the Green Line.

One of the rooms in the Ofra Seminary campus currently housing the evacuees of the illegal Amona outpost on August 28, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

But now, “we’ve become refugees in our own land,” Ziv said of the 42 Amona families. “My 17-year-old daughter shares a room with her 5-year-old brother and four other siblings. There’s no privacy for them and it’s just not healthy.”

He referred to the living conditions as an “embarrassment.”

“You try to make coffee and you just can’t,” Ziv said, pointing to a sink in the corner of the room that was over-flowing with cups and bowls.

The majority of the 42 families moved into the dormitory building in Ofra’s seminary campus on the day of the Amona evacuation on February 1. Their stay at the guest house rooms, typically reserved for youth groups and school programs visiting the settlement for the weekend, has been financed by the Binyamin Regional Council.

The hallways in the two-story building serve largely as storage areas with the guest rooms only big enough for the bunk beds that completely surround their perimeters. But the children utilize the little space in the corridors that’s not taken up by boxes, particularly the stairs, to sit and play games.

The Ziv family, who were among those evacuated from the illegal Amona outpost, pose for a photo with their children in their temporary residence in the Ofra settlement on February 10, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The 42 families share a communal kitchen and dining room, where Ziv said the residents are constantly bumping into each other; and with no washing machine in the building, clothes are taken weekly to a laundromat on the other side of the settlement.

Amona’s triumphs

But while the fate endured thus far by the former Amona residents seems akin to that of the settlers evacuated from Israeli communities such as Neve Dekalim in the Gaza Strip, Yamit in the Sinai Peninsula and Homesh in the West Bank, outpost representative Avichai Boaron emphasized two major differences that set Amona apart from other, largely forgotten, evacuated settlements.

The first is the new settlement of Amichai currently being built for the 42 families roughly 20 miles north of Ofra.

Israel’s first new settlement in over 25 years was pledged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the weeks leading up to the evacuation when it became clear that the demolition, despite extensive efforts by his right-wing coalition, was unavoidable.

The building housing Amona evacuees in Ofra, seven months after the evacuation, August 28, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Included in those efforts was the Regulation Law, which Boaron counted as the second achievement garnered thanks to the “public struggle” carried out by the Amona evacuees. Passed by the Knesset in March, the legislation allows Israel to expropriate private Palestinian land where illegal outpost homes have been built ex post facto, provided that the outposts were “built in good faith” or had government support.

Yet both triumphs have their caveats.

Amichai has faced hurdles in getting construction underway, with budget disputes between government ministries at one stage causing a month-long building freeze.

And while originally meant to prevent Amona’s razing, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Regulation Law would not retroactively save the illegal outpost. In addition, there is a growing expectation that the new legislation will be struck down by the High Court, where Palestinian landowners have petitioned against it. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has refused to defend the measure, saying that it runs counter to international law.

Avichai Boaron, spokesperson for Amona evacuees, August 28, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

However, the government was able to resolve the budgetary disputes that led to the freeze in Amichai’s construction, earmarking $15.3 million for the resumption of building last week. And while Boaron admitted that the Regulation Law may “die as an infant,” the legislation that experts say would retroactively legalize 4,000 West Bank homes has set a precedent for a government that Ziv argued will eventually be faced with the decision of regulating the outposts or simply annexing them — a win-win for the evacuee, who didn’t seem to anticipate any sort of land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians in the near, or far-off, future.

Boaron says it was the “public struggle” unleashed by Amona residents that led to the two substantial accomplishments that will benefit settlers for years to come. “Amona sacrificed itself for the betterment of those after us, and in doing so, we’ve sparked a fight bigger than any other,” he said, referring to the less effective “campaigns” launched by settlers in Gush Katif and Migron prior to their respective evacuations in 2005 and 2012. Both have been largely forgotten and without a new settlement or settlement-benefiting legislation to dull the sting of the evacuation.

“We’re showing that if you erase a community, we’ll replace it with ten more,” Ziv said of the former Amona residents’ efforts. “Because of us, there is the Regulation Law and a new community being built in Judea and Samaria,” he said, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names. “This is why we fight.”

Passing the baton

Having already endured a government-ordered evacuation, the former Amona residents are in a unique position to council the 15 families in the illegal Netiv Ha’avot outpost that is set to be demolished in less than seven months.

Netiv Ha’avot residents protest the High Court decision to demolish 17 structures of their outpost, demonstrating outside the Knesset on July 17, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Netiv Ha’avot was established in 2001 as an extended neighborhood of the Elazar settlement southwest of Bethlehem. In September 2016, the High Court ruled that 15 homes in the neighborhood had been constructed on private Palestinian land and ordered that they be demolished by March 8, 2018.

The residents have launched a similar campaign to that of the Amona evacuees, turning to public officials in an attempt to reach an agreement that would prevent the demolition ruling from being carried out.

While they have appealed to the High Court in an attempt to prevent the destruction of six of the homes, which only marginally sit on private Palestinian land, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told reporters last month that the evacuation seems unavoidable.

Nevertheless, Amona evacuees have sent a clear message to Netiv Ha’avot residents: Don’t stop fighting.

“They must fight until the end. What other option do they have?” asked Ziv. He dismissed the idea that such efforts prevented the residents from a smooth transition into post-evacuation life, given the low prospects for success.

“The more people that come out and say that they refuse to play this game, the more likely we can prevent the continuation of such calamities,” Ziv added. “It’s important to remember that the public is largely with us.”

This is not to say that the Amona evacuees haven’t been keeping track of those they feel have stood in their way over the past several years.

That list is topped by the “European Union-financed” High Court of Justice and left-wing NGOs that Ziv said led to their eviction from a land that never saw a single Palestinian occupant. “And even if they were there, it doesn’t mean that it was theirs,” he clarified.

Construction workers begin work on the new settlement, Amichai, meant to resettle the evacuees of Amona, June 20, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We have a justice system that prefers foreigners, terrorists and infiltrators over the citizens of Israel,” he charged. 

Next came the politicians. From Netanyahu who “never spoke forthrightly” with the settlers, to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who Ziv described as the “gatekeeper of the left-wing,” to opposition lawmakers such as Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, who acted against them “out of spite.”

But also earning mention was the Yesha Council leadership, which represents Israel’s West Bank settlers. Ziv said the umbrella organization placed immense pressure on the Amona residents to lay down their arms and accept less favorable compromises that the government offered early on in return for a peaceful evacuation.

“If Zambish had been with us, things would have ended differently,” said Ziv, referring to one of the settlement movement’s most influential members, Zeev Hever, by his nickame.

Israeli police forces evacuate people from the synagogue of the illegal outpost of Amona, on the second day into the eviction on February 2, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Not taking anyone at their word

Both Ziv and Boaron made clear that their fight is not yet over. “While we demand that Netanyahu and his government stand by their commitments to build us a new community, we have learned not to take their word for much,” Ziv said.

At an August 9 rally in support of the prime minister, who has been beset by a series graft investigations and scandals surrounding him and his family, Netanyahu made a point of reaching out to the former residents of the illegal outpost, whose evacuation he had been unable to prevent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a rally in his support, as he and his wife face legal investigations, held in Tel Aviv, August 9, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Simultaneously taking a jab at Labor chairman Avi Gabbay, who a month prior said that he would prioritize the needs of Israelis living in periphery towns over those of settlers in illegal outposts, Netanyahu boasted, “We have Dimona and we have Amona,” a reference to what he saw as his diverse constituency of supporters.

“I was in the car and I thought I was dreaming,” said Boaron, reflecting on his reaction to the prime minister’s remarks.

“Bibi,” he tweeted several days after the rally speech. “We have Dimona. We do not have Amona. And if you don’t take responsibility, we won’t have Amichai either.”

Therein may also lie what has differentiated the 42 families from the dozens of other past “Amonas.” While a government more sympathetic to the needs of settlers has undoubtedly been critical, the incessant pressure they have placed on their public officials to repay them for the evacuation has forced the lawmakers to respond with not just a catch phrase, but with facts on the ground.

Evicted residents from the Amona outpost protest in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem holding a sign that reads ‘You destroyed, (now) you (must) build,’ on February 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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