Even Israel says this Jewish settlement is illegal - now comes the showdown
By WILLIAM BOOTH | The Washington Post | Published: November 20, 2016
AMONA, West Bank — Nachum Schwartz is living his dream in a trailer on a windy hill, raising his children and a flock of sheep, as one of the chosen ones. This is the land of Abraham, he said, the biblical home of the Jews, and nobody is going to kick his family off their mountaintop.
"We belong to this land and this land belongs to us," said the 42-year-old farmer and herdsman, who was among the first Jewish pioneers to settle this outpost in 1996.
Now his dreams may be shoveled aside by Israeli bulldozers.
In a remarkable rebuke, Israel's supreme court has ruled that the Amona settlement is illegal, built on land stolen from Schwartz's Palestinian neighbors.
The judges have ordered the Israeli military, which controls the occupied territory, to evict the 40 families living here and demolish their houses, alongside the kindergarten, ritual baths and synagogue, by Dec. 25.
When the Israeli army came to raze just nine homes in Amona, in 2006 and many court hearings ago, it took a battalion of soldiers and police officers in riot gear and ended in a bloody melee. Hundreds of protesters were wounded, many from baton blows and horse hooves. Three legislators were among them. About 80 security forces were also injured.
The looming demolition of Amona comes as right-wing Israelis are hailing as a near-miracle the U.S. presidential election of Donald Trump, who they pray will end decades of U.S. criticism of settlement construction on land the Palestinians want for a future state. They expect Trump will give Israel a freer hand to build where they want in the West Bank.
The stakes over the fate of this hardscrabble community of shoddy caravans are high, not just in the international arena but inside Israel. The clash is being drawn as a showdown between the authority of the high court and the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is also going to be a real test for Netanyahu, who was elected with help from the Jewish settlers but also fears international censure over allegations of a bold land grab.
Settlement supporters in the Netanyahu government have been scrambling to find a way to save Amona - or at least save face.
The government first sought to provide alternative homes for the Amona residents by building units in a nearby settlement. The community includes about 200 children.
The Amona settlers refused.
Netanyahu then sought to postpone the eviction for seven months, but the high court said there have been enough delays and turned the appeal down.
Finally, the Israeli parliament last week gave preliminary approval for a controversial bill, over Netanyahu's objections, that would retroactively legalize Jewish settlements, such as Amona, that were built on private Palestinian property.
Netanyahu has boasted that his government is the most supportive of settlers in Israeli history, but he called the legalization bill needlessly provocative.
Israel's attorney general branded the legislation against international law; the high court could also reject it.
Critics of the legislation say it clearly crosses a line.
"I believe this law is evil," said Talia Sasson, president of the New Israel Fund, an Israeli lawyer who was the author of a 2005 report on illegal outposts for former prime minister Ehud Olmert. "It's so illegal in so many aspects that it's hard to believe (the high court) would approve this law. But, I can't predict the future."
Israel's education minister and the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, said the proposed law was fair and just. He stressed that the Amona settlers had done nothing wrong, and that successive Israeli governments had supported the settlements, including those built on private Palestinian land.
Bennett vowed that the days of treating the 450,000 or so Jewish settlers as "second-class Israeli citizens" were over.
Amona residents say the same and point to the roads, power lines, water pipes and soldiers sent to protect them as proof the government supports their community.
Thousands of homes in the Jewish settlements across the West Bank are suspected of being built on private Palestinian land, according to the parliament. A police investigation of land claims by the settlers in Amona found they had forged documents, a practice other settlements have been accused of. Settlers say they have to go through middlemen and use straw buyers because Palestinians won't sell them land - if they did they would be ostracized or punished by the Palestinian Authority.
The Amona eviction, if it comes, would be celebrated in the nearby Palestinian town of Silwad, just across the valley from the settlement, where a dozen families were suing to reclaim the Amona land.
The elderly Palestinian plaintiffs recall their mothers and fathers tilling the rocky soil when they were young. Sitting together in a meeting hall in Silwad, they speak with nostalgia about a long-ago bounty of figs and grapes, wheat and olives.
"I watched the settlers take the land," said Mariam Hammad, 82. "I watched, but I could not stop them."
In Amona, the settlers deny that the Palestinian petitioners ever really owned the land - despite what the courts have found. They mock the claims, which date to Jordanian rule or older, and say the elderly Palestinians never would have made a peep of complaint, were it not for left-wing Israeli activists from groups such as Peace Now and Yesh Din, who supplied the lawyers.
"I've never seen these Arabs," said Eli Greenberg, an Amona resident and biblical scholar who makes his living selling irrigation equipment over the Internet.
Greenberg said that when the Amona founders came here, "the land was barren. There was nothing here."
If Amona is destroyed and land turned over to Palestinian owners, Greenberg said, "the Arabs will never be allowed here." He said the Amona hilltop is a strategic asset, overlooking its mother settlement, called Ofra, on the next mountain. "It is too close to Ofra. Nobody will allow that." The area is protected by Israeli soldiers who block Palestinians from entering the area without special permits. The communities fear terror attacks.
Greenberg said, "The best solution is to let what is growing here continue to grow."
The proposed legislation to legalize Jewish outposts allows the Palestinians whose property was expropriated to be paid cash or given alternative land. Greenberg said that was fair.
Issa Zayed, 57, is one of the Palestinians whose family proved to the Israeli court they owned the property where Amona is built. He said it was a simple case, in a complex land. The land was stolen, Zayed said, period.
It must be returned, he said.
Zayed said that just as the land may be precious to Jews, it is precious to Palestinians. It is as dear to him as his children, and he said he didn't want any money.
Asked what would happen to him if he were to venture across the valley to walk the fields where his father farmed and spent his last day on earth, Zayed said, "I would be shot."