Mounted Israeli police scuffle with pro-settler supporters at the Amona outpost, February 1, 2006.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Amona outpost in the West Bank must be demolished within two years, the High Court of Justice ruled on Thursday.
It set an extended timeline to allow for alternative housing to be found for the 45 families who live in the small hilltop community on the outskirts of the Ofra settlement in the Binyamin region.
“There is no doubt that carrying out these demolition orders will have painful consequences for the residents and their families,” wrote Supreme Court President Judge Asher Grunis.
But he said, “the buildings were constructed on private [Palestinian] property and it’s not possible to authorize them, even retroactively.”
Grunis ordered the state to compensate the Palestinian landowners NIS 20,000 for legal fees.
Thursday’s HCJ ruling is the latest, in a complex legal petition, that was first filed in 2008 by the Israeli non-governmental group Yesh Din on behalf of 10 Palestinians from the nearby village of Silwad on whose property the outpost was built in 1995.
Yesh Din’s attorney, Michael Sfard said, “This is a landmark decision against the theft of Palestinian property in the West Bank.”
“But the happiness won’t be complete until the property owners can return to their land,” he said.
Avichai Boaron who heads the campaign to save Amona, said “We vow to fight this [ruling] with all the power at our disposal.”
He called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop “preying on the settlements in Judea and Samaria.”
There must be an end to the “lawlessness that allows the Left to control Israel through the court system,” Boaron said.
The outpost is known for its organic produce and boutique winery. But it also remembered for the violent demolition of nine permanent homes in 2006, during which clashes broke out between security forces and right wing activists.
In response to the 2008 Yesh Din petition, the court had ordered the demolition of the entire outpost by the end of 2012.
But the state successfully swayed the court to delay the community’s destruction in hopes of finding a peaceful solution to the situation.
To stave off the ruling, Amona residents told the HCJ they had purchased property on which 16 outpost homes stand. A Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court is now examining the legality of those purchases.
In an obscurely worded ruling in July 2013, the HCJ said that the structures on those plots could remain, pending the adjudication of all claims before the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, but that the other homes should be removed.
The Amona families argued that those other structures, which numbered 30, were no longer part of the case.
The families have further argued that Yesh Din cannot petition against those 30 structures because their property owners were not party to the case.
In August 2013, the HCJ rejected attempts by Amona residents to remove the 30 homes from the case. It ordered the demolition of the 30 structures and clarified that the case continued to be about the entire outpost, though it did not set a deadline for their evacuation and it agreed to hear an appeal.
On Thursday the HCJ rejected the Amona appeal and set a two-year deadline for the removal of all homes in the outpost.
In his ruling Grunis clarified that the removal of homes illegally built on private property is a high priority and it does not matter if the land owners are part of the petition.
The IDF and the state have a responsibility to protect the rights of those initial property owners, Grunis wrote.
He added that the police’s criminal division has already informed the court that it suspects that some of the purchase documents were forged.
The HCJ issued its ruling independent of pending land cases about Amona that are before the lowers courts, Grunis said. Even if the property purchase is authenticated, it would still not be possible to authorize the homes, Grunis said.
Yesh Din has in the past argued that legalizing the outpost would harm the private property rights of abutting Palestinian landowners.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) said he found the ruling painful and infuriating. Rule of law should be meted out with some common sense, he said.
Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said that the best solution was to compensate the Palestinian property owners for the loss of their land and to allow the Amona families to remain in their homes.
“We can’t tolerate a situation in which a settlement or a neighborhood is uprooted because of a property dispute,” he said.