2017-02-15 / Mideast

Despite losing Amona, Israeli settlers expect to win war for West Bank

By ANDREW TOBIN
JTA


An Israeli settler arguing with police officers evacuating the West Bank outpost of Amona, Feb. 1. JTA photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90. An Israeli settler arguing with police officers evacuating the West Bank outpost of Amona, Feb. 1. JTA photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90. AMONA, West Bank—In a dramatic clash with the settlement movement at this hilltop outpost, the state seemed to have won.

Over two sometimes violent days, security forces evacuated the residents of Amona, along with hundreds of protesters, as ordered by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Yet afterward, the settlers did not seem defeated.

“Our eyes are full of tears. We feel like soldiers defeated in battle,” said Eli Greenberg, a resident who has served as a spokesman for the community. “But we are winning the war for the West Bank. I have no doubt I will live to see Amona rebuilt.”

It was easy for Greenberg and other settlement supporters to point to victories.

During the political and legal skirmishes over Amona, the state approved thousands of new homes for settlers, including a new settlement to replace the outpost, and acted to end future evacuations. The Trump administration, some noted, barely blinked—until later, that is, when the administration declared that settlements “may not help” achieve Middle East peace.

Amona was founded on private Palestinian land and without government authorization in the 1990s. After decades of demolition orders and delays, the High Court in 2014 gave the state two years to evacuate and demolish the outpost. Although Amona comprised just 40- odd trailers that housed as many families, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found it no easier to implement the court order than his predecessors had.

And as the court’s Dec. 25 deadline approached, Netanyahu was the head of a historically pro-settlement government.

In an effort to save Amona, coalition lawmakers in November proposed the “regulation bill,” which would allow the state to seize private Palestinian land on which settlements were built. But the bill was shelved in December as Netanyahu reportedly sought to avoid yet another fight with the outgoing Obama administration. A last-minute agreement between the government and the Amona residents, later scuttled, led the High Court to grant a final extension on Amona’s demolition until early February.

During that month and a half, Donald Trump moved into the White House. Although it was too late to save Amona, Netanyahu acted to advance the settlement movement. In the two weeks after Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Netanyahu approved the building of more than 6,000 new homes for settlers, some of them outside the West Bank settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep in a future peace deal with the Palestinians.

Most recently, as Amona was being evacuated, Netanyahu announced that he had approved a new settlement to replace the doomed outpost.

Meanwhile, the coalition pushed ahead with the regulation bill. The legislation would legalize about 4,000 settler houses in the West Bank that were built on land that is claimed to be privately owned by Palestinians. (Under the measure, if the original owners of the land are known, they would be eligible to receive financial compensation from the government.)

The Palestinians, the United Nations and the European Union condemned the approvals of settlements, which most of the world considers illegal under international law. And the Obama administration in December cited the regulation bill as justification for withholding the U.S. veto of an anti-settlement resolution in the U.N. Security Council.

Settlement supporters have seen other signs that Trump is on their side, including his appointment of David Friedman, a vocal advocate and fundraiser for settler causes, as ambassador to Israel and his invitation of a settler delegation to his inauguration.

Politicians to the prime minister’s right have conveyed a similar message. Members of both Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party and the fiercely pro-settlement Jewish Home party have advocated annexing parts of the West Bank since Trump’s election.

Amichai Cohen, dean of the law faculty at Ono Academic College near Tel Aviv, said he wasn’t so sure how the High Court would rule on the bill. But he said its passage, which Cohen characterized as a move toward Israeli annexation of the West Bank, could encourage the International Criminal Court to open a formal war crimes investigation against Israeli settlements “even though there are clearly bigger problems in the region.”

Another government-backed bill would bar supporters of boycotts against Israel or its settlements from the country. 

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