AMONA OUTPOST, West Bank (AP) — The fate of 50 white caravans perched atop a West Bank hill in the Amona settler outpost is emerging as a key test for Benjamin Netanyahu's newly-expanded hard-line government.
Under a Supreme Court order, the government must tear down the outpost by the end of the year — a move expected to face staunch opposition from within the coalition and pit security forces against the wishes of leading members of the Cabinet.
Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts — built without permission but generally tolerated by the government — that dot the West Bank. The outpost became a symbol of settler defiance after a partial evacuation a decade ago sparked violent clashes between residents and security forces. The impending evacuation, ordered in 2014, could lead to another showdown.
In a surprise move last week, Netanyahu sacked Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon to make way for Avigdor Lieberman, the hawkish leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party — and a settler himself — to take the post, which oversees the settlements. The addition of Yisrael Beitenu buttresses the nationalist, pro-settler camp in Netanyahu's government and could increase the pressure on the Israeli leader to find a way to wriggle out of the Amona evacuation.
"The goal is to keep the settlement in its place," said Bezalel Smotrich, a lawmaker with the pro-settler Jewish Home party, a coalition member. "We are in a right-wing coalition that wants to develop the settlements, really doesn't want to demolish Amona and is ready to make an effort (to keep it)."
Critics say that Netanyahu's support for settlements, regardless of who makes up his Cabinet, means Amona's evacuation may not proceed smoothly.
"I think that the prime minister would do all he can to prevent an evacuation one way or another," said Hagit Ofran, from the settlement watchdog group Peace Now. She said Israel must comply with the court order but that the government typically "looks for ways to delay it, to change it, to devise new schemes that can stop the evacuation."
In a statement, the Defense Ministry said it "operates in accordance with the law and with court decisions." Netanyahu's office declined comment.
Aside from the rogue outposts, the West Bank is home to another 120 settlements that Israel considers legal. The Palestinians and the international community consider both settlements and outposts illegal or illegitimate and an obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state. In a position that is widely backed internationally, the Palestinians want the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, for their hoped-for state.
Amona was established in the mid-1990s, when a small group of settlers, quietly beckoned by government-funded infrastructure, erected caravans on the rugged knoll that has since blossomed to house some 50 families, or about 250 people.
In 2008, a group of Palestinians, represented by the Israeli rights group Yesh Din, petitioned Israel's Supreme Court, claiming Amona settlers had encroached on their land and demanded the entire outpost be dismantled. The court petition set off a protracted legal battle that saw a number of proposed evacuation dates missed and repeatedly delayed until a final ruling in 2014 ordered the state to demolish the outpost by Dec. 25, 2016. The state also agreed to compensate the landowners with about $75,000.
While the state legally must comply with the court order, the constant delays mean the Palestinian landowners remain deeply skeptical.
"We don't believe that Netanyahu will remove this settlement. We won't believe it until we see it happen with our own eyes," said Issa Zayed, who used to cultivate olives, almonds and figs when he last had access to his land nearly 20 years ago. He stares longingly at his 40-acre (16-hectare) plot from a nearby hilltop.
Amona residents and their supporters in government vow not to bow down easily and are pushing to have the government find a loophole that would allow the settlers to stay put and legalize the outpost.
"You don't uproot someone from his home," said Avichay Buaron, who heads the campaign to keep Amona intact. "There are many politicians and many Israeli leaders who want to solve the problem and that is the big question. Will they succeed in the next half a year to solve it or not? We are hoping and praying that the answer is yes."
Asked if Amona could descend into the kind of violence seen in 2006, Buaron said he hopes not, but that he won't hesitate to round up supporters to protest any evacuation.
Signs of permanence flourish in Amona, which has paved roads, rows of vineyards and a basketball court. Prominent banners at West Bank intersections read: "Recognize Amona, save the settlements."
The government has proposed building a new settlement to house the Amona evacuees, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz, a step that has settled previous disputes. Buaron said Amona residents refuse to accept the offer, determined to stay in their homes, where they say they have planted roots and raised their children.
While the court ruling to evacuate Amona was welcomed as a great success for the Palestinian landowners, the resettlement proposal has struck Palestinians and rights groups as counterproductive because it does not decrease the ballooning number of settlers in the West Bank, which now stands at around 400,000 people.
Shlomy Zachary, a lawyer with Yesh Din, said the Amona case shows that the Supreme Court is "nearly the only defense" for Palestinians with claims against the settlements. He said that since the 2006 evacuation, Amona continues to symbolize a lack of law enforcement in the West Bank.
"I don't know what the government is planning. I know that there is a final judgment and everyone is bound to this judgment, including the government," he said.