(February 6, 2017 / JNS)
Israel carried out the much-discussed evacuation of the Jewish outpost of Amona last week in a process that raised renewed questions about the future of Israeli settlements, with Israeli lawmakers seeking to retroactively legalize numerous outposts and the Trump administration possibly offering newfound support for the settlement enterprise.
For Israeli supporters of settlements in the West Bank (known commonly in Israel as Judea and Samaria), the evacuation of 40 families and hundreds of protesters from Amona—located approximately 10 miles north of Jerusalem—was a painful event that stung at the core of their nationalistic and ideological beliefs about settling across the land of Israel.
“We were mutilated, violated, symbolically, metaphorically, I don’t know what to say,” said Eli Greenberg, who along with his wife and eight children lived in Amona for nearly 20 years. “We are under God’s hand, live by divine providence, and God Almighty is the biggest of all.”
Greenberg noted that he was speaking with JNS.org while in the middle of “collecting the shreds of my house,” before his family was set to spend last Shabbat in a single room of a youth hostel where they were put up by the government, after a plan to relocate Amona’s residents to an adjacent plot of land was shot down by Israel’s High Court.
Yet for Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the Israeli non-governmental organization Yesh Din, who filed the legal action against Amona in Israel’s High Court on behalf of Palestinian ownership claimants, the evacuation represented “important days for the rule of law in Israel.” Israel’s High Court ruled in late 2014 that the outpost needed to be demolished, agreeing with claims that the community was built without appropriate administrative permits and that a percentage of the property was built on land owned by Arabs from the neighboring Palestinian community of Silwad.
“The evacuation was an important step towards the return of the Palestinian landowners to their land,” Grossman told JNS.org. “We hope that they will be able to return as soon as possible.”
The conundrum of evacuations
Evacuations of settlements represent an ideological and political conundrum in Israel.
On one hand, many Israelis believe in the ideological underpinnings of the settlement enterprise as well as legal and historical claims to the disputed territories—in particular to Judea and Samaria. On the other hand, there has been intense international pressure to cede territories, and consecutive Israeli governments have been unwilling to officially annex the West Bank and assert full Jewish sovereignty over the territory—both out of fear of international reaction, and the subsequent need to take sovereign responsibility for well over 1 million West Bank Arabs.
Israel’s High Court has ruled that other outposts similar to Amona must be evacuated in the coming months, and the evacuation of nine permanent homes in the larger settlement of Ofra—adjacent to Amona—have been ordered to be destroyed in the coming weeks.
Israeli lawmakers are now seeking to retroactively legalize more than 4,000 homes to ensure that scenes like the evacuation of Amona don’t occur at other outposts in the future.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is advancing the outpost “Normalization Law,” said Friday that “from this legal defeat we will establish a new legal regime in Judea and Samaria that will regulate the entirety of settlements, and from the painful loss of this foothold in this mountain will emerge the state of Israel’s application of sovereignty over all of Judea and Samaria.”
“We lost the battle, but we are winning the war for the land of Israel,” Bennett added.
But according to Grossman, the Normalization Law “is an illegal and immoral law that basically is meant to whitewash land theft. And it’s a law that the lawmakers of Israel, who are supposed to uphold the law, and to defend the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians, shouldn’t be passed.”
Are settlements an obstacle to peace?
The administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama, following the view of the United Nations and much of Europe, considered the continued presence and natural growth of settlements as a major obstacle to a final status peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians.
It is widely believed that new U.S. administration, led by President Donald Trump, does not view the issue of Jewish housing in Judea and Samaria as the primary cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is a longtime financial supporter of the religious Beit El settlement, which is adjacent to the Palestinian city of Ramallah and just two miles from Amona.
Even in its critique of Israel’s recent announcements of intentions to build nearly 6,000 new settlement units—with many believing that thousands more houses and apartments could be announced in the coming weeks—the Trump administration’s statement was carefully worded and specifically refused to take a definitive position on the issue.
“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Feb. 2. “As the president has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.”
Many mainstream media outlets published headlines quoting Spicer’s comment that settlements “may not be helpful,” insinuating that the new administration is opposed to Israeli settlements. Yet a more careful reading of the statement signals that even large-scale building within existing settlements could be acceptable, and that the Trump administration both has not yet taken an “official position” on the establishment of new settlements and continues to believe that settlements are not “an impediment to peace.”
The future of Israel’s settlement movement is sure to be among the top agenda items discussed between Netanyahu and Trump during their Feb. 15 meeting at the White House.
Fading prospects for two-state solution
Yesh Din’s Grossman is hopeful that international pressure will remain strong on Israel to push for further evacuations, as a necessary step toward a final status peace agreement with the Palestinians. “I can only hope that the political leaders on both sides will find a way to reach a peace solution,” he said. “And I think that everybody in Israel hopes for that outcome.”
Yet millions of supporters of the settlement enterprise, in addition to the 400,000 residents of settlements, do not share Grossman’s sentiment that most Israelis favor a two-state solution to the conflict. All indications from both the current Israeli governing coalition and the Palestinian leadership suggest that the chances for a Palestinian state are slimmer than ever.
Evacuated Amona resident Eli Greenberg is hopeful that no Palestinian state will be created on the land where his home once stood, and suggested that based on the strength of the now-displaced community, this evacuation will ultimately lead to the rededication of a new settlement—“if not returning to this hilltop, then another one,” he said.
“The community is definitely very strong,” said Greenberg. “We will be strong. We have to fight the holy war of this holy people.”