Amona Outpost, West Bank — One day after residents at this unauthorized hilltop settler outpost approved a deal with the government to peacefully relocate, groups of deflated teen activists who had come to Amona to block the army were packing up amid a cold and wet fog.
“Bummer,” said Yishai Goldberg, a dough-faced 16-year-old yeshiva student from Jerusalem who had come four days earlier. “I came to help [the settlers], and if necessary, to hang on and not allow [the police] to take them out quietly.”
Facing a 2-year-old Supreme Court order to clear the West Bank hilltop by Dec. 25 because it was built on privately owned Palestinian property, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu averted a major split with his supporters on the right wing this week when the Amona residents accepted the compromise on Sunday afternoon.
In return for a voluntary evacuation of Amona, which overlooks the settlement of Ofra, several miles northeast of Jerusalem, the government agreed to resettle 24 of the 40 families on plots of absentee Palestinian landowners on the north side of the same hilltop. The government also allocated some $34 million in assistance for the families and to build a new settlement several miles north of Ofra.
Hundreds of pro-settler youths had been hunkering down at Amona since last week, gathering tires along the roadside to slow down security forces. It was shaping up to be a replay of the violent evacuation of nine buildings from the same outpost in 2006, when riot police on horseback clashed with young protesters creating images seared in Israel’s collective memory.
This time, Amona residents had been building temporary shelters on the hilltop for thousands of protestors; police and soldiers had already begun training for an evacuation by force.
“We’ve done the maximum,” said Netanyahu at his weekly cabinet meeting, arguing that the government had held dozens of meetings and considered several “out of the box” solutions.
Alluding to pressure within the pro-settler Jewish Home party to bolt the governing coalition, Netanyahu said, “There’s never been a government that cares about the settlements in the Land of Israel more than this government.”
The settlers’ decision to accept the government’s offer passed by a 45-29 vote after several hours of debate.
“We decided to give a chance to a proposal to build our lives here at Amona,” read a statement on the Amona residents’ Facebook page. In a thank-you post to activists, the outpost leaders wrote, “We realize many of you wanted us to make a different decision. … This is far from perfect. This is not the messiah. This is not the Temple.”
Eli Greenberg, a 12-year resident of the settlement, insisted there was no compromise, and said the families at Amona had won a victory. The debate, he said, was whether to cling to their ideology of not conceding any parts of the Land of Israel and have the opportunity to remain on the hilltop.
Greenberg also hailed the government’s commitment to pass the controversial outpost legalization as a political dividend of the settlers’ struggle. “This is major,” he said. The bill, which has been introduced into the Knesset, allows for the retroactive legalization of settlement houses built on the property of Palestinians, who would get financial compensation.
On Monday, yeshiva student Goldberg waxed nostalgic about camping out in the living rooms of Amona residents with guitars and song amid near freezing temperatures outside.
“I was very disappointed,” he said. “We shouldn’t give up on the country so easily. Our host told us: ‘Listen, it’s a victory. We will remain on the mountain.’ But it’s hard to convince me.”
The compromise on Amona is part of a larger effort by the Netanyahu government to retroactively legalize dozens of tiny hilltop outposts that were built in the West Bank without formal authorization by the Israeli cabinet. The policy has drawn condemnation from the international community and the United States.
Israeli peace and human rights activists slammed the government for the compromise.
“It’s a scandal,” said Hagit Ofran, who runs the settlement-monitoring project at Peace Now. “Not only are we talking about a court order that should be implemented to take down illegal construction, the government is doing its utmost to compensate those who broke the law and took other people’s land. It’s absurd.”
Ofran said that passing an outpost legalization law in the Knesset would be “a game-changing” step toward formal annexation of the West Bank.
“That’s putting the discrimination on the table,” she said. “We are actually saying that we are going to legislate there, and the law we are going to legislate that we have more rights than you Palestinians. We can take your land. That’s a horrible sign for the State of Israel.”
On Tuesday, the government requested a 45-day extension on the deadline for evacuation to implement the agreement. Yesh Din, a human rights group monitoring law enforcement in the West Bank, called the compromise “a corrupt agreement between the government of Israel and lawbreakers.” The organization said that a Palestinian owner of the plot of land that the government wants to give the Amona settlers would challenge the compromise.
Michael Sfard, the Yesh Din lawyer who represented the Palestinian landowners, wrote in Haaretz that the plan to relocate Amona to another area of the same hilltop would effectively block the original landowners from returning to their plots.
“In the State of Israel, which is becoming the State of Amona, the lawmakers are prepared to do away with the property rights of thousands of people who have been under our control for 50 years now, all in the name of the superlative principle of the settlers’ welfare,” he wrote. “Everyone has forgotten that the Eighth Commandment is ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ and the 10th commands ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.’”
Back in Amona, Greenberg admitted he hadn’t even discussed with his wife whether his family would be among the 25 to relocate elsewhere on the hilltop. “It will be a trauma, especially for my kids. This was not an easy solution.”
Even the compromise, he said, had not been finalized. With the court challenge, the agreement could fall through. “The situation is fluid. … We all know what can happen to promises and good intentions,’’ Greenberg said. “It’s definitely not over.”