Amona, West Bank — On Feb. 1 Shani Hamo was taking refuge in a corner of her home when some of the 3,000 police sent to evacuate this unauthorized settler outpost knocked down her door and ordered her and her family outside.
“We’d planned to take the children out of Amona so they wouldn’t be traumatized, but the police arrived so early, there was no time,” said Hamo, a pregnant mother of three young children, the morning after the evacuation.
The next morning, seated in a hostel in the adjoining settlement of Ofra where most of the 40 evacuated families are staying until the government prepares the promised site of their new West Bank homes, Hamo disputed the High Court’s ruling that Amona needed to be demolished because it stood on private Palestinian land.
“In our minds all of the Land of Israel is our land, whether it’s Tel Aviv or Amona,” Hamo said as she helped her children at the breakfast buffet set up for the Amona evacuees. In a few hours she was slated to return to her home for a final time to retrieve her belongings.
Although the government has since removed Amona’s mostly prefab homes, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 additional homes built on private Palestinian land received at least a temporary reprieve Sunday when the Knesset voted to permit the state to seize privately owned Palestinian land in order to legalize existing homes in settlements and until-now unauthorized outposts built on that land. It mandates that the Palestinian land owners must be financially compensated for their lost property.
The legislation, coupled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent vow to build up to 6,000 new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, has elicited scorn from Israel’s left and could create friction with the Trump administration, which appears to be backpedaling from Israel-related campaign promises.
Trump’s team has indicated it is in no rush to move the Tel Aviv-based American embassy to Jerusalem, out of fears it will inflame the Arab world. And last week Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, said, “While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
Trump “has not taken an official position on settlement activity,” the White House also noted.
Yuval Shany, a professor of law at the Hebrew University law school, anticipates the law will be challenged not only in Israel’s Supreme Court but by the international community, and that this will be a test of Trump’s position on settlements.
“I think there is going to be some pushback by international institutions and some states to try to punish Israel for its activities” in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. “They may utilize the U.N. Security Council. There is already a pending case before the International Criminal Court,” he said.
Shany said the new law is “important” because it “breaks new ground.”
From 1967 until now, the law professor said, “Israel carried out settlement activity according to an elaborate legal theory that settlements were built on lands either purchased by individuals or on vacant public land, but never private Palestinian land.”
When Israeli buildings were built on private West Bank Palestinian land, “the courts ordered Israel to demolish them,” Shany noted. “That’s what we saw in Amona.”
Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who is now a visiting professor at Yeshiva University, would like to see settlements legalized and expanded, but believes Monday’s Knesset vote was ill-timed.
“The law exposes Israel and the entire settlement community to international criticism, and I think it wasn’t smart to hold this vote a week ahead of the prime minister’s visit with President Trump,” Ayalon said. “It would have been wiser to wait for the meeting between the prime minister and the president as a show of respect to the president. I hope the White House will understand this law in its political context and the fact that it won’t change reality on the ground. Because no one is going to evacuate them anyway.”
The law, Ayalon said, is rooted in the right-wing government’s “political motivations” as a “payoff” for the Amona evacuation fiercely opposed by some of Netanyahu’s coalition partners.
Ayalon hopes Netanyahu, who is scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on Feb. 15, spends the meeting underscoring the values the U.S. and Israel jointly share.
“I think we can really coordinate our actions with the Trump administration. Hopefully he will be much more understanding than Obama of Israel’s security concerns,” Ayalon said.
Shmuel Rosner, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations and a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, doubts Trump is very bent out of shape by the Knesset’s settlement law “because I doubt his mindset is clear on the issue. He’ll do what he thinks is best for advancing his own policies.”
For this reason, Rosner said, the assumption by Israel’s right wing that Trump will allow unlimited settlement building “is ridiculous. But on the other hand, expecting him to be the person who stops Israel from putting settlements into the West Bank is also premature.”
Rosner considers the law “mostly symbolic” and believes it will likely be struck down by the High Court. Peace Now, for one, has called on its supporters to challenge the law in court.
Rosner said right-wing legislators felt compelled to pass the law due to intense pressure from their constituents.
“They did it, they celebrated as if it was a great achievement, and now we can go back to business.”
Netanyahu, he said, has a “very realistic” view and a “very sober outlook” on how things will likely develop with the Trump administration, “in contrast to his right-wing coalition partners.”
While the prime minister must rely on those partners to stay in power, he’s well aware that the Israeli public is deeply divided over West Bank land grabs.
According to a Peace Index poll released Tuesday by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, 53 percent of the Jewish public believes Israel should not annex large parts of the West Bank versus 37 percent who support it.
For Eliana Passentin, a spokeswoman for the Binyamin regional council where Amona once stood, opinion polls aren’t important.
Watching the evacuation of Amona’s synagogue during the second day of the two-day removal of residents, she said, “There are 400,000 of us residents in Judea and Samaria, not including east Jerusalem. We came here because we have historical and biblical roots. Israel fought a war in 1967 that it did not choose and ended up winning. This land is rightfully ours,” Passentin said.