(December 19, 2016 / JNS) Residents of the 40-home West Bank settlement of Amona agreed to a last-minute government proposal to shift the community to an adjacent plot of land on which the Israeli government will build 52 permanent homes and additional infrastructure, in exchange for promises of a peaceful evacuation without protest. Israel’s High Court of Justice had initially ordered to evacuate and demolish the existing settlement by Dec. 25.
Knesset legislators have been working to advance the proposed Arrangement Law, which would legalize many outposts in order to avoid future evacuations. But Professor Efraim Inbar, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies think tank, told JNS.org that such a law “cannot be applied ex post facto to Amona” because there is already a High Court ruling in place.
In accepting the new proposal, which was a disappointment to more than 1,000 youths who had arrived at the hilltop to protest the impending demolition, residents said in a statement, “If in the next month the state lives up to its promise to build 52 houses and public structures, then the struggle will be crowned a success and Amona will stay on the hill. If the state does not keep its promises, we will not hesitate to start the fight again, with more grit and more strength.”
For several weeks, Israeli lawmakers had been conceiving various proposals in order to strike an agreement with the community and ensure a peaceful evacuation. After residents rejected a previous proposal last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, stated, “I hear voices calling for violent opposition. There will be no understanding or tolerance for violence against security forces in the evacuation. But there will have to be empathy for those losing their homes.”
Back in 2006, nine permanent, yet uninhabited homes in Amona were destroyed by order of the High Court. Yet thousands of protestors came to the site to block the demolition, and the government, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, sent riot police to disperse the crowd. More than 200 protesters—including Knesset members—were injured, with several protesters needing to be airlifted to Jerusalem hospitals.
The status of illegal outposts in Israel—many, like Amona, that have been in existence for more than 20 years—has called into question Israel’s sovereignty over contested tracts of land that have persisted as enduring points of contention in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Do settlement evacuations advance peace?
Within Israel, settlements are an oft-contested issue, despite several Israeli governing coalitions advancing settlement and outpost construction in the West Bank—known in Israel as Judea and Samaria—and in Gaza. Today there are approximately 400,000 settlers living under full Israeli military and civil authority in the West Bank.
In 2005, Israel evacuated nearly 10,000 settlers from the Gush Katif Jewish communities of Gaza, turning those tracts of land over to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Yet within the span of only a few months, the PA was run out of Gaza and replaced as a governing entity by the terrorist organization Hamas. Since the evacuation, tens of thousands of rockets have been fired into Israel, and several large-scale Israeli military operations were launched, leaving many Israelis skeptical that evacuating settlements leads toward the peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict.
Are settlements legal?
The Begin-Sadat Center’s Inbar told JNS.org that when Amona was initially established, “It was believed that the property was built exclusively on state-owned lands. Yet later it was determined that part of the property was on private Arab lands.”
Cases against specific settlements are brought to Israel’s High Court by a handful of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that generally claim all settlements are illegal. These NGOs search Israel’s land registry and check settlement building permits to identify technicalities, and in many cases they work to identify Palestinian land owners and their descendants—some of whom are actually unaware of their ownership within the land records—to advance cases in the High Court.
The High Court, which ordered the Amona evacuation, has consistently ruled in favor of demolishing any settlement construction that did not receive complete authorization from the Israeli government, or sits on lands that belong to Palestinian families according to the land registry—even in cases of “absentee ownership,” in which the land in question lay fallow for decades, and the registered owners or their descendants were previously unaware of their claims to the property.
Regarding Amona, the High Court “decided on the basis of the facts presented to it by the state that this land is not proper for takeover [by Jewish communities],” Inbar told JNS.org.
The government vs. the High Court
Following a ruling against an outpost, it becomes the duty of the executive branch of Israel’s government, led by the prime minister, to carry out the evacuations by a court-designated date. Unlike the court, Israel’s government is formed by national elections and is held together by a parliamentary majority—meaning that the government can collapse at any point if any of the parties comprising a ruling coalition abandon their support of government policies.
The current government is comprised primarily of nationalistic and religious parties that by and large support the settlement enterprise. As such, the government has searched for solutions, including shifting settlements currently on Arab-registered land to nearby tracts of state-owned land, or paying for the evacuations and building new infrastructure for the settlers, in order to soften the blow of a High Court ruling.
The settlers themselves are usually caught in the middle of the legal process, with their lives disrupted by the evacuations.
“There is a great human tragedy for several families there,” Inbar said of Amona. “But there is a rule of law, and the government cannot do anything about it. Israel has a High Court of Justice.”