AMONA, West Bank (AP) — Israeli forces uprooted this West Bank outpost on Wednesday, removing residents and hundreds of their supporters in sometimes violent clashes as they dismantled a community that has become a symbol of Jewish settler defiance.
The evacuation, which followed years of legal battles, came amid a flurry of bold new settlement moves by Israel's government, which has been buoyed by the election of President Donald Trump.
Thousands of police officers carried out the removal, squaring off against hundreds of protesters, many of them young religious activists who flocked to the wind-swept hilltop to show their solidarity with residents.
Planting themselves inside trailer homes and the community's synagogue, the protesters defied police, who carried some away. Protesters chained themselves to heavy objects or linked arms to form a wall against police, chanting "Jews don't expel Jews!" Dozens of residents reluctantly left their homes without resistance, young children in tow.
"This is my home. I want to stay here. It is my right to stay here," resident Tamar Nizri told Channel 2 TV news. "This is expulsion, destruction, an injustice and a crime. The most basic truth is that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel," including the West Bank, she said.
With some 250 residents, Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts erected in the West Bank without formal permission but generally with tacit support from the Israeli government. It was the scene of violent clashes between settlers and security forces during a partial demolition exactly 11 years ago, on Feb. 1, 2006.
Those homes were found to be built on private Palestinian land. Israel's Supreme Court later ruled in 2014 that the entire outpost was built on private Palestinian land and must be demolished, setting Feb. 8 as the final deadline after repeated delays.
In an apparent attempt to temper settler anger over the evacuation, Israel approved thousands of new settler homes a day before the outpost's removal, signaling a ramping up of settlement construction under President Trump, who has indicated he will be more accepting of Israeli settlement policies. The settler movement is a potent political force in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's nationalist coalition government is dominated by settlers and their allies.
In contrast to his predecessors, Trump has voiced no objections to Israel's latest settlement binge. Amona residents and their supporters had hoped Trump and his softer approach might open a door for the outpost to remain on the hilltop, to no avail.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 3,000 officers were deployed to carry out the evacuation.
They were met by 1,500 protesters who erected makeshift barricades from smashed tiles, rusty metal bars and large rocks to slow the police advance. Police said some 20 officers were slightly injured by stones or an unidentified liquid hurled at them and a dozen protesters were arrested. Hundreds of protesters were removed from the hill and more than half of the outpost's roughly 40 families had left their homes by nightfall.
Protesters, who began arriving in the weeks ahead of the slated demolition, heckled officers and pleaded with them to refuse their orders. The evacuation was expected to drag into the night.
As it proceeded, Israel's Supreme Court rejected a government proposal to move Amona's residents to plots on the same hilltop, leaving them without a relocation plan. Many were headed temporarily to the nearby settlement of Ofra.
The Palestinians and most of the international community consider both outposts and settlements illegal and see them as an obstacle to creating a Palestinian state. The Palestinians want the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — for their future state. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, and the territory was subsequently overrun by the Hamas militant group.
Trump has said he wants to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, but has given no indication of how he plans to do this. His campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, the cornerstone of U.S. Mideast policy for decades, and he has surrounded himself with advisers with deep ties to the settlement movement.
A day before the evacuation, Netanyahu approved 3,000 West Bank settler homes, in addition to earlier approvals of 2,500 homes in the West Bank and 560 in east Jerusalem. In a statement, Netanyahu said he has set up a team to look into establishing a new settlement to house the residents evacuated from Amona.
Settlement supporters are banking on Trump to support or at least let slide an explosive bill that seeks to legalize several thousand additional homes built on land seized from Palestinian landowners. Instead, it would offer the Palestinians compensation.
The evacuation marks the end of a yearslong legal battle by the Palestinians who own the land Amona was built on and witnessed repeated delays by the government to implement the court ruling.
"Our feeling is indescribable," said Abdel-Rahman Saleh, the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Silwad who assisted the landowners in building their case. "This will open the way for other Palestinians to move ahead and retrieve their confiscated land."
Ahmad Majdalani, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also welcomed the evacuation, but said the other settlement moves were "meant to finally kill the two-state solution."
Amona's evacuation drove a wedge through the hard-line coalition of Netanyahu, who has been caught between appeasing his pro-settler coalition allies and respecting the rulings issued by the Supreme Court.
The pro-settler Jewish Home party had pushed Netanyahu to find a legal loophole that would keep the residents on the hill.
Bilha Schwarts, 24, came with her husband and 9-month-old daughter to support Amona's residents.
"If they want it they can take it, we will not fight," she said. "We will leave but we will come back."
Goldenberg reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.