Israel has begun the process of transplanting 41 homes in the Amona settlement in the West Bank that are sitting on private Palestinian land to a nearby patch of ground whose owners are unknown, the Peace Now NGO said on Friday.
“They have started the process of taking land,” Hagit Ofran, of Peace Now, told AFP, apparently referring to the Israeli government.
Established in 1997, Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts — built without permission but generally tolerated by the government — that dot the West Bank. The High Court of Justice has repeatedly ruled against the unauthorized outpost, and set a deadline of late 2016 for moving the homes.
The residents of Amona have vowed to fight the evacuation, and right-wing ministers have called for various solutions, including legislation, that would allow them to remain, though lawmakers have struggled to find a formula that could legally sidestep court-recognized ownership.
One alternative called for relocating the settlement to the northern West Bank, to land near the settlement of Shiloh. Amona’s residents have rejected such a move.
But a new plan, developed in the Justice Ministry, seeks to move the residents to “non-permanent” homes on an adjacent plot of land whose owners — Palestinians who left the area during the 1967 Six Day War — are not known.
An advertisement bearing the crest of Israel’s Civil Administration — a unit of the Defense Ministry in the West Bank — appeared in the Palestinian daily al-Quds on Thursday listing several plots of land near the Amona settlement, northeast of Ramallah. The ad said that the lands are considered to be the property of absentee Palestinian owners and therefore liable to seizure.
Anyone claiming legal ownership is invited to lodge objections within 30 days of the ad’s publication, it said.
“The Civil Administration has opened a process whereby it is announcing that it intends to make use of these properties that are near Amona,” Ofran said.
“It can be assumed that the purpose of the takeover is to allow the relocation of the settlers of Amona from the land they are currently occupying,” a Peace Now statement added.
The United States said late Thursday it was “deeply concerned” by the Israeli plan.
“This would represent an unprecedented and troubling step that’s inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinion and counter to long-standing Israeli policy to not seize private Palestinian land for Israeli settlements,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters.
The Israeli framework to relocate Amona, presented as a formal legal opinion to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, would see the residents of the new neighborhood pay rent into a state-managed bank account that would be held in escrow for the owners, and would be theirs to claim should they present proof of their pre-1967 ownership of the land.
The plan was leaked earlier this month to Army Radio. It was authored by a special committee led by attorney Chaya Zandberg, head of the civil law department in the State Attorney’s Office, and including the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser and head of its planning administration, and a representative of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
According to the new framework, the state would not seek workarounds to the High Court’s evacuation order. All 41 homes will be dismantled and removed.
Meanwhile, the nearby plot of land would be offered to the families in renewable three-year rental contracts.
The contracts will include an article explicitly affirming that if the rightful owner of the land returns to the West Bank, the contracts will be voided and the land handed to him or her.
According to Army Radio, the 30-page report dwells at length on the requirements of international laws related to absentee owners in occupied territories. International law will not be abridged by the move, the report argues, because the land is being used on a rental basis, and no ownership is being claimed by its future residents.
The new framework is expected to garner the support of cabinet ministers, and to withstand any possible High Court challenge. Part of the reasoning is grounded in a 1998 legal opinion by then-IDF military advocate general Uri Shoham, who today serves as a justice on the High Court.
Mandelblit must approve the plan before it can be carried out.