Tense Amona girds for battle as evacuation fails to materialize — for now

Braving the cold, hundreds of protesters stream to illegal outpost as rumors of impending operation spread, preparing fortifications for coming last stand

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

Protesters gather atop a water tower in Amona on December 15, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/ Times of Israel)
Protesters gather atop a water tower in Amona on December 15, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/ Times of Israel)

A heavy fog hung low over the West Bank outpost of Amona and an icy wind blew in from the northeast as hundreds of young Israeli men and women gathered early Thursday morning to protest the impending evacuation of some 40 families living here.

As dawn broke over the illegal settlement, hours after residents voted to reject a government deal to move them peacefully to a nearby plot of land, rumored bulldozers and troops failed to materialize.

Amona had stood another day, teetering over a tense precipice in its standoff with the state and court, but daylight meant it was that many hours closer to the court-imposed final deadline of December 25 and a possible violent clash with police.

In December 2014, the High Court of Justice ruled that parts of Amona had been built on privately owned Palestinian land and that the entire settlement had to be dismantled by December 25, despite government requests for a postponement.

Settlement residents gathered for some 10 hours Wednesday to discuss taking the government deal, which is intended to avoid possible violence during the evacuation, announcing just after midnight that they had overwhelmingly turned it down.

Less than an hour after the vote, word began to spread that the evacuation order would be carried out at 6 a.m. Thursday, though it was not clear if that was based off actual intelligence, speculation or a public relations measure to drum up support and bring in protesters.

Messages were sent out on Facebook, on WhatsApp, on Twitter and in text messages for supporters to come to the outpost, as the evacuation was nigh.

“We call for all the nation Israel to come to Amona and protest the wrongdoing of a Jewish settlement’s destruction,” one message read.

Hundreds of young Israelis, many of them from settlements themselves, heeded the call.

To ward off the cold of the blustery, frigid night, some protesters huddled in their cars with the engines running, while others slept packed like sardines on the floors of Amona residents.

The largest concentration, however, was in the outpost’s synagogue, where dozens of teenage boys filled the building with body heat and musk. Bespectacled protesters entering the synagogue had their glasses fog up as a result of the sudden, dramatic temperature swing.

Most of the boys slept, but some recited psalms while others argued and wrestled.

In the entrance, one boy cuddled with a dog, both of them crammed into a skinny sleeping bag.

Outside, people in cars and on foot moved through the settlement, keeping an eye out for the army and passing the time.

Protesters begin to gather in the West Bank outpost of Amona ahead of a court-ordered evacuation, December 15, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Protesters begin to gather in the West Bank outpost of Amona ahead of a court-ordered evacuation, December 15, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

“We just got back from a field patrol,” one protester said as he walked into the synagogue, rubbing his hands together to increase circulation.

By Wednesday night, the protesters had already placed basketball-sized rocks and tires, which they would set on fire, next to the roadways leading into Amona, to prevent — or at least hinder — security forces from entering the outpost.

One of the central questions of the Amona evacuation is if the protests against it would turn violent, as they did in 2006 when nine of the outpost’s buildings were razed.

Many of the protesters used military terminology — patrols, posts, entryways — but demurred at the notion of physical confrontation with security forces.

Kalman, a member of the ultra-nationalist and anti-miscegenation group Lehava, said he didn’t anticipate violence beyond “some pushing and shoving.”

“I don’t think anyone is going to need an ambulance,” he said.

In the 2006 evacuation, vicious clashes broke out between demonstrators and security forces. Hundreds were injured, including two Knesset members. A Border Police officer suffered a serious head wound.

But Kalman, who described himself as belonging to a “more radical” organization, said he didn’t expect a repeat.

“The police, I think, understand the situation now,” he said, unlike in 2006, when “the government had to show who was boss.”

Kalman, who gave only his first name, had come from Jerusalem to protest the evacuation. He admitted that despite their efforts, the order was likely to be carried out anyway, and he was okay with that.

“This is a small part of a much, much, much bigger issue,” he said. That issue is the High Court, which the protesters perceived as wielding too much power.

Moshe, 19, a student studying in a yeshiva in the northern Israeli city of Beit She’an, said that he’d come to Amona to “show the government that the nation was against” the evacuation.

To Moshe, who also gave only his first name, removing settlers from anywhere in the West Bank must be protested, “as a rule.”

“This land was given to the Jewish people,” he said.

However, Moshe said, his rabbi had given strict instructions not to resort to violence.

“If the police come in to move us out, we won’t fight them,” he said.

Women walking in the Amona outpost on December 15, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Women walking in the Amona outpost on December 15, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The two protesters standing next to Moshe, sporting long sidelocks and heavy beards, seemed to disagree, shaking their heads and chuckling to themselves as he presented his stance against physical confrontation.

When asked if they would use violence against security forces, they didn’t answer.

One protester, from the Metzad settlement in the Etzion Bloc, said, “In my personal opinion, I’m against violence.” However, he said, he would not hesitate to protect himself if he was attacked.

Even against a police officer?

“Of course, it’s self-defense,” he said, with a smile.

Just after 4:30 a.m., Kalman received a text message from someone coming to Amona, telling him the entrance to the adjacent Ofra settlement had been closed off. Rumors started to spread that the evacuation was underway.

The rumors, as it turned out, we’re half true. The road leading to Ofra had been closed, but it had nothing to do with Amona.

The army was conducting an operation in the area, a military spokesperson said.

The alleged 6 a.m. start time came and went without incident, and as of 8, no police or army vehicle was in the area.

As the sun rose over the illegal outpost, clearing away the fog, doubts began to spread that the evacuation was imminent. But even as residents and their backers realized they had survived the night, preparations continued for the confrontation that will come, eventually.

As the sun began to climb in the sky, protesters got to work setting up their fortifications​, moving dumpsters into the roads and, directed by Lehava head Benzi Gopstein who had arrived during the night to join the protest, mounting the outpost’s water towers — marking what could be their last stand.

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