Amona: The calm before the outpost storm [pg. 3]

Amona residents brace for battle over their hilltop homes.

After seven years of living in a caravan, Yifat Ehrlich had hoped to give birth to her baby in her new stone home. But politics and the courts thwarted that dream. The baby came last week, before the legal status of her home, in the unauthorized outpost of Amona, was ruled on by the courts. Desperate to get out of the caravan's cramped quarters, she and her family are temporarily living in rented space in the outpost's only small wooden structure, while her new large home, with its stone arches and drawn shutters, stands empty. It is one of nine homes, perched on a hilltop, along a dirt road, where only the sound of the wind and distant traffic could be heard Thursday, on what could soon be the newest site of clashes between settlers and the IDF. Settlers have vowed to mobilize thousands to protect the newly built homes, should the government make good on its threat to demolish them in the coming weeks. But on this sunny afternoon, only a few people were visibly scattered around the hilltop. A court ruling on Wednesday delayed by a week a demolition order first issued in October 2004, to allow settlers time to petition the court to allow the homes to stand. The judges "have opened a window for us," said Amona spokesman Ariel Kahana. But Idit Levinger, who has lived in a nearby caravan for the last seven years with her family, said the whole issue made her uneasy about the future. "It worries me," she said. Levinger walked to see the homes with her three sons, even though her family does not own one. But she hopes one day soon to build a similar home. The Amona families who built the homes had agreed to wait to move in until the court process was completed. Here in Amona, home to 35 young couples, people bristle at the description of their 10-year-old community as illegal, even though a government report, completed last year by attorney Talia Sasson, determined that it is one of 105 unauthorized outposts in Judea and Samaria. Still, the government is not moving against the caravans, only the homes, which mark the first cluster of permanent structures on the site. A small paved road runs up the hillside opposite Ofra, which has two small playgrounds, a bus stop, at least 35 caravans and the small, one-story wooden home. Amona was among the outposts authorized by former prime minister Ehud Barak, said Levinger, who grew up in nearby Beit El. She is quick to point out that she is not a relative of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who helped found the Jewish community in Hebron. "I know every rock in these hills," said Levinger, as she closed her sweater against the wind. "People think that this isn't part of Israel, but when I'm here I feel that I'm in the geographical and spiritual center" of the country, she added, while her sons played on the porch of one of the empty homes. Pointing to the far hills, Levinger said, "You can see the Dead Sea from here, and Jordan and Jerusalem." Most of the families here grew up in the surrounding settlements, she said, adding: "We wanted to start something new on our own." Kahana said the site was chosen by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "He told people that he was happy to see it developing when he flew over it," he said. "He was the one who urged us to build permanent homes here." Kahana is hopeful that the courts will recognize the community's claim to the homes. If not, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip is organizing protesters to head to the site to help defend the homes. An empty protest tent stands by the homes. In an indoor communal playroom in Amona, filled with old couches and children's toys, the floor is filled with painted signs that state: "The eternal people are not afraid of the long road." Council spokeswoman Emily Amrusi said the fight was made easier because, in her view, the council was asking people to help protect structures. While orders to stop work on the site had been issued by the military government in 2000, Amrusi said the land was owned by the council. It purchased the property from a Palestinian in an under-the-table deal, because it was dangerous for Palestinians to sell land to Jews, she said. Among those who came to visit the site on Thursday was the architect of the homes, who preferred not to be named. He hadn't understood that the land's legal status was in question, he told The Jerusalem Post. "I wanted to take pictures before they were destroyed," he said. "It's a crazy country we live in," he added, as he walked away shaking his head.