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Reporter's notebook

Outpost residents vow they won’t be booted from their hilltop ‘paradise’

Backed by Likud, Amona’s settlers are pushing a proposal for recognition, but the attorney general has ruled it unconstitutional and is weighing their relocation. Will the issue bring down the government?

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Families walk on a street in the Amona Jewish outpost in the West Bank, on July 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Families walk on a street in the Amona Jewish outpost in the West Bank, on July 28, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

AMONA, West Bank — The residents here don’t get up to answer their doors, but beckon visitors to simply “come in.” It is a breezy September afternoon, and the outpost overlooking the settlement of Ofra, in the central West Bank, is sleepy. A bearded Jewish man slowly picks laundry off a clothesline, his young son looking on.

Through the thin walls of the elementary school, perched at the edge of the hilltop, a teacher is enthusiastically — if vainly — prodding his students for answers. A young girl, no older than 7, strolls alone on the paved, empty road — past a playground and well-maintained vineyard planted by the settlers.

The suburban idyll belies a harsh truth that many in the tiny outpost, built on a hotly contested patch of land, are disinclined to acknowledge — in just over three months, they may all be forced to move.

After a protracted legal battle, the Supreme Court in 2014 ordered the Israeli government to dismantle the unauthorized outpost by December 2016, ruling that it was built illegally on private Palestinian land and must be returned to its original owners.

The West Bank outpost of Amona (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of the West Bank outpost of Amona (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

Amona appears on no map. There is no public transportation to this nearly 20-year-old outpost, accessible only by car, hitchhiking, or by foot in a nearly 3-kilometer (1.8-mile) walk from Ofra, a bustling metropolis by comparison. Many of its 41 caravans — essentially mobile homes without wheels — are affixed with wood-paneled porches and extended by way of “lightweight construction,” the only construction tolerated in this outpost, whose existence is illegal even by Israeli standards, to say nothing of the international community, which views all Israeli settlement as out of bounds.

Inside, the homes are nicely tiled, decorative and cozy. Outside, several caravans feature backyard trampolines, some families have planted flowers, bikes are dropped lazily on the ground, and there are toys, toys, everywhere.

“It’s paradise,” California-born Manya Hillel of Amona, one of several residents who contend that they will not leave, as of last week, despite increasing signs that even lawmakers on their side will be powerless to stop the evacuation.

In an effort to sidestep the demolition, coalition Knesset members have locked horns over the so-called “regulation bill,” which proposes the Palestinian owners whose lands have been appropriated for settlements or outposts receive alternate plots of land in the West Bank, in addition to financial compensation amounting to 50 percent of the land’s value.

The bill was shelved in July after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit argued it was “unconstitutional.” A similar law to recognize outposts was knocked down in its preliminary reading in the Knesset in 2012, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposed it and threatened to fire any minister or deputy minister who voted in favor.

Nonetheless, the bill was given new life last week with a petition signed by 25 of the 30 Likud Knesset members, including top ministers, backing it.

Meanwhile, after reportedly spiking the bill, the Justice Ministry, led by Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party, is hammering out another plan to declare the land around Amona, whose Palestinian owners are not known, as “absentee property” and replicate the outpost on a hilltop nearby.

The attorney general has yet to decide whether to approve the plan, which has been condemned by left-wing NGOs and the United States.

But as of last week, with the Likud MKs seemingly behind them, the residents of Amona were opposing the proposal to replicate the outpost elsewhere, and pushing for the regulation bill.

Israeli children play outside their home in the wildcat Amona settlement, West Bank, on September 7, 2016.(AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
Israeli children play outside their home in the Amona settlement, West Bank, on September 7, 2016. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

 

Ayelet Vidal, a mother of four who has lived in Amona for nine years, dubbed the proposal to move the outpost “kombinot,” or shady backdoor dealings.

“We aren’t someone’s soldiers, that you can just move us from here to there and there. We are human beings, full of life. We made homes here – even if it [doesn’t] look like [it], because we couldn’t build permanent housing – but there’s a community, and on the inside, people are living very full lives, both personal and communal,” she said.

Vidal said she was holding out for the regulation bill, come what may.

“Even if I know there are risks that it won’t work out, I would rather go the honest route and try to legislate the regulation law, which is a law that gives compensation to the owners and allows for Israeli sovereignty, and starts to prove to the world and to us that this land really belongs to us,” she said. “And even if it fails in the end, I would rather that than moving somewhere else without changing something essential in the national perspective.”

‘Not another Migron’

This isn’t the first time residents of Amona have vowed to take a stand against an impending evacuation order. In 2006, police carried out an order to demolish a handful of permanent homes that had been built in the outpost without permits. Violent clashes broke out between troops and settlers — including many who came from surrounding areas to block the demolition — leaving 200 people injured, some seriously, and prompting serious allegations of excessive police force.

It was “very, very violent,” recalled Shira David, who has lived in Amona since its founding in 1996.

Does she think it could escalate to the same level of intensity if Amona is evacuated in its entirety? “It could,” she warned.

“When we came here, there really was no dispute [over the land] — on the contrary,” David said. “The people of Ofra had a dream that there would be a settlement built here. And there were a lot of budgets from the state, and when the houses were built here” they were eligible for mortgages, she said, before they were demolished in 2006.

Israeli policemen clash with Jewish settlers at a burning barricade in the unauthorized outpost of Amona, close to the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra, on Jan. 1, 2006 (file photo/Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)
Israeli policemen clash with Jewish settlers at a burning barricade in the unauthorized outpost of Amona, close to the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra, on Jan. 1, 2006 (Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

 

Explaining why she moved to Amona with her family in 2007, Vidal said: “We liked the nature, liked the view. At the time, no one talked about — there was no awareness about the whole issue of private lands.”

“Nothing was here. These lands were totally barren. There was nothing here,” said Hillel, the California native, who moved to Amona 14 years ago.

In outlining their positions, several women from Amona argued that the regulation law would give the Palestinian landowners financial compensation, while citing the Jews’ biblical birthright to the land. And they pointed to another outpost recently evacuated under similar circumstances — Migron, demolished in 2012, its 50 families moved nearby — underlining that after the outpost was removed by court order, the Palestinian farmers never moved in.

“They evacuated Migron, and the place is a ruin, desolate and there is nothing there – so what was that all for? Why destroy?” said Vidal.

“Overall, we are opposed to this idea,” she added, regarding the option of moving elsewhere. “It’s both a matter of faith and ideology. Faith – that this land really is ours, and we returned to our birthright after many years. And we believe there is a way to resolve [the issue] with the Arabs who lived here, and some of whom claim to have land here; we can manage. I have no problem in principle in paying compensation to a person whose land was settled, but I think that as a nation, we came back, and we need to be sovereign in the land.”

Manya Hillel, a resident of Amona (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)
Manya Hillel, a resident of Amona (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)

Hillel, a mother of six, moved to Amona from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. In the afternoon, she teaches Bible stories to children in Amona, aged 4-7, with songs, dance and puppets. Just a few months ago, she said, the regulation bill seemed “so far-fetched that nobody even considered it,” but now she’s praying it goes ahead.

“It’s so ridiculous, there’s no sense in any of this. There’s no sense, no justice, no humanity, nothing. And people who say it’s good for the Arabs, good for the Palestinians – they don’t get anything out of this. They don’t get money that they could get,” she said.

Asked whether she would stay until the end, Hillel said she had no intention to leave. “Yeah, I don’t know, I don’t have any other plans. A lot of people here decided not to make other plans, not to plan what we’ll do if it happens — just to stay focused right now on that we don’t want this to happen, and that we don’t have anywhere else to go to. And we’re here to stay.”

Like Vidal, she pointed to Migron: “Look at Migron, four years went by, nothing happened there. It’s just a ruined, destroyed, beautiful hilltop… no Arab came and did anything there.”

File: Destroyed buildings at the illegal outpost of Migron on September 12, 2012. (Oren Nahshon/Flash90)
File: Destroyed buildings at the illegal outpost of Migron on September 12, 2012. (Oren Nahshon/Flash90)

Regulation vs. replication

In a statement to The Times of Israel, Mandelblit, the attorney general, said the regulation bill touted by Likud members would be unprecedented in its damage to Israeli law.

“The proposals seek to retroactively cancel a final and conclusive ruling by the Supreme Court on specific cases, something that has no precedent and will strike a fatal blow to the rule of law,” he maintained. Moreover, the bill “anchors damage to individual property rights, which is inconsistent with constitutional requirements, and runs contrary to Israel’s obligations under international law.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with then-cabinet secretary and current Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, May 26, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with then-cabinet secretary and current Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, May 26, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

In an effort to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling, Mandelblit is weighing a Justice Ministry proposal that would 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.

The framework, leaked to Army Radio in early August, 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. According to the new framework, which is based on Israel’s absentee property laws, the state would not seek workarounds to the High Court’s evacuation order. All 41 homes will be dismantled and removed. The nearby plot of land would be offered to the families in renewable three-year rental contracts.

But in a letter to Shaked and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, first reported by Channel 2 last Tuesday, the residents of Amona canceled a scheduled meeting and decried the leaders of the right-wing nationalist party for dropping their support for the regulation law in favor of transferring the outpost.

“Certainly it must have come to your attention that the matter of ‘absentee property’ has been taken off the agenda, after it was cut by officials at the Civil Administration,” they wrote. “In the current situation, we firmly oppose implementing this bad plan and we certainly won’t cooperate with it.”

MK Ayelet Shaked (left), seen with Jewish Home Chairman Naftali Bennett during a party meeting at the Knesset. (photo credit: Flash90)
MK Ayelet Shaked (left), seen with Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett during a party meeting at the Knesset. (Flash90)

On Wednesday morning, Shaked insisted that “the residents of Amona have for the past year asked to advance the absentee property solution,” and said the proposal was still being formulated.

“A year ago, the Defense Ministry proposed to the Amona residents to found a new settlement near Shilo. The residents of Amona were not interested, and I respect that,” she told Army Radio. “They are the ones who initiated the absentee property plan. It would be the replication of the settlement on nearby plots.”

A statement from the Justice Ministry confirmed that Mandelblit held a meeting last week on the matter of declaring the plots adjacent to Amona absentee property, but has not yet made a decision, as a committee outlining the proposal requested more time. On Wednesday, in a possible hiccup to the plan, the Israeli Yesh Din human rights group announced that it had gathered objections to allocating that land from 29 Palestinian landowners out of the 35 plots being evaluated.

The view from the outpost of Amona (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)
The view from the outpost of Amona (Marissa Newman/Times of Israel)

Also Wednesday, perhaps in an attempt to woo back his constituents from the arms of the Likud, Bennett indicated that he and Shaked were working on a larger plan to retain not only Amona, but all the structures ordered demolished by the Supreme Court. In an apparent flip-flop, he suggested that backing the regulation law was not out of the question.

“We have made a decision to find a strategic solution, rather than a localized one,” he said in a video message. “Ayelet and I are working on a larger process that will solve all the problems – it could be the implementation of ‘Edmund Levy’ [a 2012 committee led by former justice Levy that recommended Israel legalize the outposts], the regulation law, or changing a government resolution. If it becomes apparent that the regulation [law] is the right solution, we’ll go with that.”

Doubling down on Friday, Bennett said his party was working on what he described as “sweeping reforms” to recognize “thousands” of existing unauthorized housing units in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The minister said he would demand the government implement the plan. But he conceded that with Amona “there is a tactical problem, since it was a final and conclusive court ruling.”

“We will do everything we can to stop the evacuation,” he maintained, while raising the idea of moving the outpost to an adjacent plot, “but it must be said that there is no magical solution, as the Likud members are trying to sell. That’s the truth.”

A coalition divided

The Amona evacuation order is a coalition crisis in the making for what has been described as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

On September 1, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Israel would honor the Supreme Court decision and raze Amona. But with the publication of the petition showing overwhelming support by Likud members and ministers for the regulation bill, the first cracks appeared within the coalition — and the ruling party — earlier last week.

“This bill is so bad, this law is so wrong, it’s so extreme in its deviation from social values,” Likud MK Benny Begin told Army Radio on Sunday. “It’s a moral question – a group of people decides to build huts or even houses on land that isn’t theirs, knowing it isn’t theirs.”

MK Benny Begin (Likud) (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Benny Begin. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Hitting back a day later, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), a confidant of Netanyahu who has signed the petition for the regulation law, dismissed the court ruling, telling the Walla news website “there was no theft here.”

“Everyone was certain this was state land. There was a settlement [built here] with the assistance and the agreement of state institutions,” he said. “In any other place in Israel and in the world, if, years after a community was built on land, a mistake was discovered and someone claims ownership on the land, they wouldn’t destroy the community. In these cases it’s customary to offer financial compensation.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 16, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 16, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Like Steinitz, the residents of Amona are quick to point out that the government has assisted them throughout, pointing to the infrastructure in the outpost – electricity, roads, water – supplied by Israel’s state-run institutions.

“This whole place was built up by the government. We have electricity, we have Bezeq [phone and internet service],” said Hillel. “All the infrastructure for the houses that were destroyed 10 years ago — there were millions of shekels put in by the government.”

War or no war?

On the way out of Amona, a gas supply truck stops by the hitchhiking post to offer a ride down to Ofra, with the second passenger good-naturedly hopping in the back with the gas tanks to make room for me and a sunburned teenage girl from Amona.

“There will be no war here” this time, the driver predicts, referring to the evacuation.

The girl, dressed in loose-fitting clothing, a nose ring and eyebrow rings, disagrees. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, and nobody will know until the very last minute, she says.

She won’t agree with me, the driver continues, pointing to the girl. But “the young generation here, her generation, doesn’t care,” he says, muttering about the “internet generation, smartphone generation.”

The driver adds that he came, as a protester, during the 2006 demolitions. But he won’t be there this time.

Perspectives have changed, he says. “People now understand that when the state decides something, that’s it, they do it.”

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