Editor's Notes: A symbol of settler resistance or of Israeli indecision?

The fate of Amona has the government in a quandary ahead of December 25, the date set by the court for its evacuation.

By
October 21, 2016 07:54
Mounted Israeli police scuffle with pro-settler supporters at the Amona outpost, February 1, 2006

Mounted Israeli police scuffle with pro-settler supporters at the Amona outpost, February 1, 2006. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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The police were assembled in a tight column along the road leading to Amona. It was February 1, 2006, and after repeated delays, the government was finally going to evacuate nine homes built in the West Bank settler outpost.

The police arrived dressed in riot gear, with cavalry and water cannons. Several thousand right-wing activists had entered the outpost the preceding week, and resistance was expected.

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By the time the day ended, the nine homes had been razed, and hundreds of people had been injured. The violence was extreme, as activists took up positions on rooftops and bombarded the approaching police with a hail of rocks. The policemen did not have much tolerance, and a subsequent Knesset committee concluded that they exerted excessive force, arrived unprepared, and did not use the crowd-dispersion measures – like water cannons – that they had brought to the scene.

Six months earlier, Israel had forcibly removed some 9,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip as part of the disengagement. The residents of Gush Katif did not willingly evacuate their homes, but they also did not raise a hand against the IDF soldiers sent to remove them. Except for a handful of incidents, the evacuation passed with barely any resistance. It was a painful experience, but for the country’s sake, the Gaza residents made a decision not to fight.

I arrived at Amona the night before the nine homes were to be demolished, and spoke with police as they gathered at the bottom of the windy road that leads to the outpost. These were the same officers who had overseen the Gaza withdrawal six months earlier, and there was a feeling that this evacuation would end similarly – while they knew that young activists had gathered for the face-off the next day, they still expected the evacuation to go smoothly.

They were wrong. The youth, barricaded inside the homes, came looking for a fight. They had been led to believe by some rabbis that the Gaza pullout would be stopped. But when it wasn’t, they decided it was because of the diplomatic, statesmanlike approach of the Gaza settlers. Violence, they decided, would be needed from now on to stop evacuations.

The demolition of the nine homes in 2006 was mandated by the High Court. At the time, Peace Now petitioned the court and singled out the nine homes. The bigger problem though – that the entire outpost was built on private Palestinian land – was put aside. That is until 2008, when another petition was filed, this time against the entire outpost.



So why evacuate the nine homes in 2006 if the outpost remained anyhow? Good question.

While the violent evacuation in 2006 turned Amona into a symbol of settler resistance, in reality it is a symbol of Israeli indecision. Nearly 11 years later, it is a problem that has still not been solved.

The fate of Amona has the government in a quandary ahead of December 25, the date set by the court for its evacuation.

Four options are currently on the table; all have their problems.

The first is for the government to implement the court ruling and evacuates the 40 families who live on the hilltop. This is unlikely, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not want to jeopardize his coalition – Naftali Bennett and Bayit Yehudi have already threatened they will topple the government if an evacuation goes ahead.

The second option is for the government to pass a bill that would retroactively legalize settler homes built on private Palestinian land – like Amona – in exchange for granting compensation to the original land owners. The problem is that Netanyahu and the attorney general oppose the bill.

The third option is to convince Amona’s residents to move to an alternate site. Since there seems to be no state land available nearby, the government has offered the residents to move to a new neighborhood it is constructing in Shiloh, a settlement about 20 minutes away. The residents have rejected the offer. Avichai Boaron, one of Amona’s leaders, says that the residents have no interest in leaving their hilltop.

And the last alternative is simply to do what consecutive Israeli governments have done until now: make a decision not to make a decision. How could they do that? By going to the High Court next week and asking (again) for a six-month extension to (again) try and find a solution.

I turned to Bennie Begin, the veteran Likud lawmaker and an expert on West Bank outposts, to gauge where the situation is headed. Begin believes in compromises. As a member of the cabinet in the last government, he appeared before the High Court numerous times to negotiate deals that would prevent violent evacuations.

In 2012, for example, it was Begin who brokered a deal with residents of Migron, another illegal outpost, to relocate to state land, after the court ruled that the land on which their outpost was originally built belonged to a private Palestinian.

Begin is a unique voice within the Likud. While 25 of his fellow party members signed a letter supporting the controversial expropriation bill, Begin is against it. First, because in 1978 the cabinet passed a resolution that Jewish communities in the West Bank can only be built on state land. Approving illegal homes, Begin says, would directly contradict a previous government decision.

The second issue is more fundamental: the law, he told me, would undermine the entire settlement enterprise.

“It will cast a heavy shadow over the legitimacy of all communities in Judea and Samaria, since the significance of the law will be that it is permitted to seize private Arab property,” Begin said. “This will put everything at risk.”

Begin is particularly disturbed by claims made by Boaron and other Amona residents that hundreds of additional homes throughout the West Bank were built on private Palestinian land, and are also in need of a remedy. According to Begin, this is simply not true.

“More than 400,000 Jews live in Judea and Samaria, including 100,000 in communities in northern Samaria in what some people refer to as ‘isolated’ communities,” he said.

“There is no reason to unnecessarily scare the public that this is at risk.”

According to Begin, even if there are some homes that were built 40 or 45 years ago on private Palestinian land, the fact that no one has come forward to claim the land means that there is no threat to their existence. This is not the case with Amona, he says, and for Amona’s residents to claim this is like threatening the entire settlement enterprise.

For Netanyahu there are no good solutions. Construction of the homes in Shiloh has already been met by fierce – some might say unprecedented – criticism from the Obama administration.

In addition, Netanyahu fears that Obama is planning to introduce an anti-Israel resolution at the Security Council next month, after the presidential elections. More time to find a solution for Amona means less of a headache at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

The controversial expropriation bill will also likely not be brought to a vote for the same reason. Netanyahu prefers small steps when it comes to the settlements. He doesn’t like drastic changes like the sudden legalization of dozens of homes built on private land, a move that would immediately draw mass condemnations from around the world.

But what happens if the High Court refuses to grant a stay and the residents refuse to move out, meaning that an evacuation is needed? Even if that happens, it will be difficult to see Bayit Yehudi bring down one of the most right-wing government in Israeli history over a single outpost whose residents have been offered a slew of compromises and rejected them all.

There are already signs that the larger settler/right-wing camp doesn’t want that.

Nevertheless, it is time to decide. The people of Amona deserve to know what their fate will be, and the people of Israel deserve to know what their leadership is planning for their future and the future of Jewish communities scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. More is at stake than just one illegal outpost.

***

LAST WEEK, Dore Gold stepped down as director-general of the Foreign Ministry. The move was unexpected and sudden.

While Gold claimed that his decision was for “personal reasons,” it was difficult to understand why someone seemingly at the heart of Israel’s diplomatic activity would walk away after just a year and a bit on the job.

And while it remains unclear what “personal reasons” really means, it seems to be the excuse of choice these days for people departing the PMO. As Jerusalem Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon pointed out the day Gold stepped down, Yaakov Nagel, acting head of the National Security Council, turned down Netanyahu’s offer to take over the post on a permanent basis also citing “personal reasons.”

A month later, David Sharan, Netanyahu’s powerful chief of staff, abruptly left the office, as did Koby Tzoref, a top political adviser to the prime minister.

Gold, though, was different from them all. He had been at Netanyahu’s side since the mid-1990s, and stayed with him through the good times and the tough years in the political wilderness of the opposition. Gold was the ultimate loyalist.

He also appeared to be doing important work, like establishing diplomatic ties with countries in Africa, and opening doors throughout the Gulf. Additionally, with no foreign minister – Netanyahu holds that portfolio – Gold was basically Israel’s top diplomat. To leave all that for personal reasons sounds strange.

If anything, Gold’s sudden departure alongside Nagel, Sharan and others raises questions about what is happening within the PMO, and why Netanyahu seems to have difficulty keeping his staff at his side.

Was it the appointment of Michael Oren as a deputy minister that pushed Gold out? That might be, although it remains unclear to most people – including, it seems, to Oren himself – what exactly he is supposed to be doing in his new office. Or maybe it was tension with Yitzhak Molcho, Netanyahu’s longtime confidant and personal envoy that finally got to Gold.

It could also have been that Gold finally got fed up with the Foreign Ministry being carved up by Netanyahu into bits and pieces that he could use for coalition favors.

Either way, with Gold’s departure last week, Israel’s Foreign Service lost one of its more experienced and talented diplomats.

There is, however, a bigger problem that should not be neglected. Israel has not had a real full-time foreign minister for almost two years now. Some might argue that there is no better foreign minister than Netanyahu, but there is no question that without a full-time politician at the helm of the ministry, there is no leverage over the prime minister or finance minister to allocate the budgets needed to build up Israel’s image overseas.

For better or for worse, political power in Israel means executive power. Without a full-time foreign minister, our expectations shouldn’t be too high.

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