Security and Defense: Amona’s last stand?

The battle over Amona gave way to legislation that seeks to retroactively legalize 4,000 settler homes, but for the outpost it seems to be too late.

Mounted Israeli police scuffle with pro-settler supporters at the Amona outpost, February 1, 2006 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mounted Israeli police scuffle with pro-settler supporters at the Amona outpost, February 1, 2006
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 ‘Don’t raise your hands against your brothers,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi) urged the 40 families in the Amona outpost as he spoke before the Knesset plenum, when the historic settlements bill passed a first reading with 58 in favor and 51 opposed.
He was not alone. From the same plenum MK Yehudah Glick (Likud) said to the Amona families, “Don’t cause a war between the citizens of Israel and the security forces.”
The right-wing parliamentarians spoke at a seemingly impossible moment, when the Knesset, twice in one week, gave its initial approval to legislation to retroactively legalize 4,000 settler homes. It was a bill that everyone said would never happen.
The legislation had lacked the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who feared it would harm Israel before the International Criminal Court and strengthen the possibility of a United Nations Security Council resolution against Israel.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has also cautioned that the bill is unconstitutional, violating both Israeli and international law. It runs counter to 40 years of High Court of Justice rulings forbidding settlement construction on private Palestinian property.
It comes at a time that Netanyahu’s administration has most feared, that twilight period between administrations, when it is presumed that US President Barack Obama is most free to support an anti-Israel resolution at the Security Council, particularly given his no-tolerance policy for settlements.
The legislation was brought forward, against all odds, after an intense campaign by 40 families that make up the Amona outpost who live on a small hilltop, just outside of the Ofra settlement in the Binyamin region of the West Bank.
In 2014, the High Court, in response to a petition by Yesh Din, ordered that the homes must be demolished by December 25, 2016, because they were built without permits on private Palestinian property.
There has been a script to these things that Netanyahu has perfected since taking office in 2009, marred only at brief moments by clashes between settlers and security forces.
In instances of demolitions, Netanyahu has managed to broker deals. In those cases settlers have voluntarily evacuated, with promises of large-scale building approvals or the minor relocation of the outpost to a nearby site where it can be legalized.
It was the script even for hard-core cases, such as the Migron outpost in 2012 and the 30 homes in the Ulpana outpost, both of which it had been presumed would come down only amid very violent clashes.
Even as late as October, Netanyahu confidently told the Knesset, “I am certain that at the end of the day, the [Amona] residents will evacuate responsibly.”
But Amona has never been an on-script outpost.
It was first created in 1995, with a NIS 2.1 million grant from the Construction Ministry.
Although its residents lived in caravans, within six or seven years it was already seen as the granddaddy of the outposts or the Disneyland version.
With its young families, it seemed calm and sedate next to the scrappier and younger outposts, around which more contention and certainly violence seemed to swirl.
The outpost was the least likely candidate for the clashes that erupted there in 2006, when the High Court ordered the demolition of nine new permanent dwellings.
They had been built without permits, on the community’s perimeter, and were the only such example of permanent construction.
Families who had lived for years in caravans were hoping to finally have large new homes. But before anyone could move in, Peace Now petitioned the High Court and received a ruling against the homes, which it deemed were constructed on private Palestinian property.
The forced demolitions occurred half a year after the destruction of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in northern Samaria in the summer of 2005.
It also played out just days after the Hebron Jewish community came to an agreement with the state, in which Jewish families agreed to peacefully evacuate market stalls they had turned into apartments.
Hundreds of teenagers and young adult activists, upset by what they believed was the passive response in both instances, flocked to the outpost to defend it.
They took buses, hitchhiked and walked from all areas of the country and channeled all their anger against the government – for abandoning the settlement movement – into protecting the nine Amona stone structures.
They barricaded themselves both inside the nine homes and behind barbed wire they had strung around the rooftops. Others stood and confronted police who arrived on horseback, in full riot gear, with batons swinging. Behind them were the cranes, which police used to clear out the activists.
The event marked one of the most violent and prolonged clashes between settlers and security forces. The scenes of activists with bloodied faces, carried off the scene in stretchers, have lived on in the political landscape of the settlers’ battle for legitimacy. At the heart of every protest they have against government action is the prospect of “Amona II” breaking out.
Ehud Olmert, who was prime minister in 2006, was not phased by such violence, creating an almost repeat situation in Hebron when he forcibly evacuated Beit Hashalom.
But the images from the Amona evacuation have cast a long shadow on Netanyahu’s policy when it comes to implementing High Court orders to forcibly demolish settler homes.
From the start, the Amona families used the 2006 violence as their rallying cry, insisting that “Amona won’t fall twice.”
They rejected all attempts by the government to relocate them, including the creation in their name of a new neighborhood in the Shiloh settlement, also in the Binyamin region.
Instead they insisted that the government, in spite of the court ruling, had to legalize their homes. This was not an issue of law, they said, but one of failed policy.
The logic was simple. They were not alone, they explained. They were among some 4,000 homes built on private Palestinian property, with some form of assistance from the government, such as the grant that they received for infrastructure.
“We were emissaries of the government,” they said, explaining that despite their illegal status, they were clearly carrying out government policy and as such should be protected by the government.
At present, they explained, all those homes are vulnerable to demolition because at any time a left-wing group such as Yesh Din or Peace Now could petition the High Court and obtain a demolition order.
Two such orders are in fact pending, one against nine homes in the Ofra settlement and another against 15 homes in the Derech Ha’avot outpost.
If the government doesn’t intend to demolish those homes, then it must at some point legalize them, the Amona families explained. If that is the case, than it should do so now and save their homes.
Their emotional appeal and their branding of the 4,000 homes as a second disengagement were effective.
All the Bayit Yehudi politicians and most of the Likud ones, save for Bennie Begin, swore their allegiance to Amona. Some 120 national-religious rabbis called on their public to stand with Amona to prevent its demolition.
The Amona families had a simple message: Legalize all the homes on private Palestinian property, including theirs, or face a violent demolition that would bring down the government.
With the steadfast spirit of the Amona families in back of them, legislators moved forward and then hit a snag.
The Kulanu Party, whose support for the bill was necessary, insisted that all homes under High Court demolitions must be excluded from the bill. Otherwise, they argued, it would be seen as circumventing a court order.
To push the legislation forward, all the ministers and politicians who had thrown their support behind legalizing Amona, including the settler leaders, agreed to drop the outpost from the bill. The nine homes in Ofra and the 15 in Derech Ha’avot were also taken out.
Already on December 4, Yigal Dilmoni, the deputy head of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, tweeted that after speaking with Bennett, he understood that the legislation was a major achievement, even if it excluded Amona, because in any event an option would be found for them.
On Wednesday, Bennett thanked the families publicly in the Knesset, stating that due to them, thousands of homes in Judea and Samaria would be saved.
But for the Amona families, looking less than three weeks down to the road to the demolition date, which is also the first day of Hanukka, this is the time to stand strong, not back down. Hanukka is famously the battle of the weak against the mighty.
In 2007 photographer Oded Balilty won a Pulitzer Prize for a photograph called “The Power of One” that he shot during the 2006 clashes in Amona.
It depicted one young female right-wing activist pushing with all her might against a border policeman’s plastic shield that was much larger than her and seemed to tower above her. Due to the angle of the photograph, it looked as though she were single-handedly pushing back dozens of police officers, preventing them from advancing on the homes.
In an interview posted on YouTube, Balilty explained that he had been looking specifically for an image to capture the idea of a small group of people acting against a force that was much larger than themselves.
“I was looking for one settler against a big group of police officers, and it happened,” Balilty said.
Almost 10 years later, Amona families, with their 200 children, are similarly pushing back against Netanyahu, the international community and the politicians in their own camp who have suddenly left their side.
The law, they note, has not been passed into legislation.
They fear that if they agree to walk now, it will die a slow death in committee, without ever making it to a second and third (final) reading.
But that is only part of their issue. They see no reason they should have to give up on their homes.
“Unfortunately, Bennett and Netanyahu, who are prepared to pass the law and to deal with international threats (such as the ICC or the United Nations Security Council), caved in against the smallest of political threats from Kulanu, threats that have nothing behind them,” the Amona families said.
“We expect the education minister and the prime minister not to give up, but to find a way to include Amona and other similar places within the legislation before the second and third readings,” the Amona families said.
Although the focus has been on violence, some 10 years later their last stand could very well be played out in the Knesset and not in the West Bank hilltops.
Already on Thursday Amona residents called on activists to come immediately to the outpost fearful of an imminent evacuation as early as Saturday night.
“We call on those faithful to the Land of Israel, who have stood by us until today, to join us at the outpost until such time as the law is amended, or until the day of demolition,” the Amona families said.