Skirting roadblocks, protesters stream to Amona as evacuation looms

Gathering around defenses left over after last eviction was staved off, settlers wait for High Court to rule if government deal will stand, plan for ‘rough’ confrontation with forces if not

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

New prefabricated homes are seen under construction in the West Bank between the Israeli outpost of Amona and the settlement of Ofra (background), north of Ramallah, on January 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
New prefabricated homes are seen under construction in the West Bank between the Israeli outpost of Amona and the settlement of Ofra (background), north of Ramallah, on January 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

AMONA, West Bank — A line of soldiers blocked the road leading to the Amona outpost in the central West Bank on Tuesday night, as residents of the illegal settlement waited for news of their fate from the High Court of Justice.

On Tuesday morning, Amona residents received an evacuation order from the army, giving them 48 hours to leave the area with their belongings.

Despite the roadblock, rain and near freezing temperatures, several hundred protesters made their way to the settlement in order to make the evacuation as difficult and unpopular as possible for the government.

Busloads of additional activists were reportedly turned away, but determined protesters circumvented the army by arriving on foot, raising fears of a violent showdown on the hilltop, famous for a bruising clash between settlers and troops during a smaller eviction there in 2006.

In 2014, the court determined that part of the outpost was built on privately owned Palestinian land and ordered that it be evacuated. That decree was supposed to be carried out by December 25, but in light of a last-minute deal with the residents, the government received an additional 45 days to clear the outpost.

Since then, the approximately 40 families who live on the hilltop, near Ramallah, have been in a state of limbo as the deal with the government, which would see most residents moved to a nearby plot of land under absentee ownership, has been held up by court challenges.

Israeli settlers protest the planned eviction of the Amona outpost, in front of the Knesset, January 30, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Israeli settlers protest the planned eviction of the Amona outpost, in front of the Knesset, January 30, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On December 18, when the evacuation seemed imminent, the residents reached a deal with the government, under which they would evacuate peacefully and, in exchange, some of them would get new homes on an adjacent plot of land, while the rest would be settled in the nearby Ofra settlement.

However, the left-wing Yesh Din organization quickly appealed to the court on behalf of a Palestinian man to overturn the agreement, arguing that the adjacent plot of land promised by the government was also privately owned.

The state asked the court to accept the deal and allow the adjacent plot for the settlers, citing security considerations.

The state argued the looming evacuation was considered an “explosive incident with security implications,” adding that there was a “weighty security interest” in making the plot available and averting what could be a violent showdown between the residents and security forces.

On Tuesday afternoon, Yesh Din presented its case to the court, but the judges had yet to render a decision on the legality of the agreement, as of Tuesday night.

Though a small number of troops were set up directly outside the settlement — and hundreds more were reportedly stationed nearby — the timing of the evacuation remained unknown, and not only because of the wait for the High Court decision.

Organizers said it could begin on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, but the army said its 48-hour notice expires on Thursday morning.

The IDF order also allows residents to file an appeal for a 48-hour extension, which, if given, would set the evacuation for the morning of the Sabbath, and so would likely only take place on Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Regardless of the uncertainty, organizers in the outpost called for supporters to come to the settlement in order to protest the potential evacuation.

Hundreds of protesters — the overwhelming majority religious teen boys — answered that call and flocked to Amona. For many this was their second time doing so, having also come out ahead of the postponed evacuation in December.

In 2006, the outpost was the site of vicious clashes between protesters and security forces, when the High Court ordered the demolition of nine buildings in the illegal outpost, which were also found to have been built on privately owned Palestinian land.

The possibility of a similar violent conflict loomed ahead of the December deadline, as protesters set up defenses to keep the army and police away.

Many of those preparations remained in place on Tuesday. Rocks were piled up along the roadside, as were tires which could be set alight, in order to block or slow the military’s entrance to the site.

Unlike in the planned December evacuation, this time as supporters arrived, they were met by Israeli troops, who refused entrance to all but the settlement’s residents and journalists.

Instead supporters streamed to the hilltop through footpaths, hiking up with large backpacks in winter clothes and waterproof jackets against the bitter winter cold and rain.

At 9:00 p.m., the protesters crammed into the outpost’s synagogue, where one of the organizers told them he had “no idea” what was going to happen, as the court had not yet made its decision.

“There’s a chance the High Court will approve the deal, and we’ll all go home,” he said, prompting applause.

“But there’s also a good chance the court will do away with the agreement,” he added.

The organizer encouraged the young protesters to prepare for an “energetic” evacuation.

“This isn’t Gush Katif,” he said, referring to the 2005 evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip. “We’re not going to hug the soldiers and sing them songs.”

The evacuation needs to be “as rough as possible, as hard as possible, as long as possible,” he said.

“It’s not just that they’re evacuating us for no reason, but that they will have broken the deal.”

In order to draw sympathy from “the people in Tel Aviv,” the organizer told the protesters to take pictures and broadcast the evacuation through Facebook Live.

“The last thing [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu wants is pictures of cops dragging us out of here,” he said.

“A picture of a cop dragging a little girl out her house,” he added, “that’s the picture that we want.”

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