World Middle East First Look

Israel evacuates West Bank outpost as Netanyahu promises new settlement

After a long legal battle, Israel's Supreme Court had ordered residents to evacuate the West Bank outpost of Amona, which was built on private Palestinian land. But now that residents are gone, the prime minister has vowed to build a new settlement for evicted families.

A man walks past a wall of a synagogue covered with Hebrew text, including a swastika and the words 'Israeli police' (lower l.), after it was evacuated during the second day of an operation by Israeli forces to evict the illegal outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank on Feb. 2, 2017.
Amir Cohen/Reuters
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Israeli police completed the evacuation of Amona, an illegal Israeli outpost in the West Bank, on Thursday, marking a win for critics of Israeli settlements. The same day, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to establish a new West Bank settlement "as soon as possible" in order to make up for the demolition, underscoring the government's challenge balancing the demands of Palestinians and much of the international community with an increasingly powerful pro-settler movement at home.

Many of Amona's 330 residents left willingly when evacuations began on Wednesday, but others refused to leave of their own accord, with many being carried out of their homes by police. The last remaining residents were bolstered by young right-wing protesters, some of whom threw rocks and caustic liquids at police. The evacuation was completed by Thursday, with some 3,000 officers assisting to remove all residents and around 200 protesters who had barricaded themselves in the local synagogue.

In November, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that Amona's residents must evacuate, since the community was built on privately owned Palestinian land. A partial demolition 11 years ago led to violent clashes in which more than 200 people were injured.

Mr. Netanyahu's promise to expand construction in the West Bank is the latest in a series since President Trump took office in the United States. While Palestinians, and most of the international community, consider all Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal, the US president has indicated that he is more willing to support settlements than his predecessor, Barack Obama. Mr. Trump has also said that he would broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians but has not given any indication as to how he would do it.

Over the past two weeks, in light of the seeming support from the new US administration, Netanyahu has announced plans to build more than 6,000 new settlement homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"We all understand the depth of the pain and therefore we will establish a new settlement on state land," he said. "Already yesterday I formed a team that will determine the settlement location and get everything ready. And we will act so that it happens as soon as possible."

The building announcement soured the day for many Palestinians, as well as members of the international community, who had seen the order to demolish Amona as a major legal victory.

"This spike in settlement activity undermines trust and makes a two state solution – with an Israel that is safe from terrorism and a Palestinian state that is viable and sovereign – much harder to achieve," said Britain's minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, according to the Associated Press.

Protesters, however, voiced nationalist views laying claim to the land – an increasingly strong voice in Israeli politics.

"This is my home. I want to stay here. It is my right to stay here," Amona 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."

During the evacuation, some protesters chained themselves to walls and linked arms to form walls against police, with chants of "Jews don't expel Jews!" directed at police. Thirteen protesters were detained by police, and 20 officers were injured in various scuffles during the process, though most residents opted for more passive resistance.

"We won't leave our homes on our own. Pull us out, and we'll go," one settler told reporters, as Reuters reports. "It is a black day for Zionism."

Legally, the battle for the outpost ended several months ago. But for many observers, the drawn-out case underscores the growing political influence of the pro-settler movement, which has become an important piece of Netanyahu's base in the Likud party, as The Christian Science Monitor's Christa Case Bryant recently reported:

The court order to demolish Amona by Feb. 8 represents a victory for Palestinians, who presented documents showing that Amona was built on private Palestinian land.

But the Israeli government’s response, offering compensation to residents and drafting new legislation that would “legalize housing units built by settlers on private Palestinian land,” looks to critics like an end-run around the legal system – and an unfair victory for the settlers. ...

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, agrees with the mayor’s view that Palestinians and their supporters “can only push so far using the Israeli legal system.”

“While it’s an important court victory in the sense that they’re still holding firm to this idea that you can’t just steal private Palestinian land and build settlements on it,” she says, “the Israeli government is finding all sorts of ways to go around it.”

The last official Israel settlements in the West Bank were built in 1999. Since then, unofficial settlements have continued to spring up, with the government often turning a blind eye to their construction.

But while a few dozen homes in Amona will be demolished, and the land returned to Palestinian ownership, right-wing Israelis, bolstered by Trump's recent victory, are likely to press forward with settlements elsewhere. Many Israelis claim ownership of all land in the West Bank, citing historic, religious, and political connections to the area.

"We have lost the battle over Amona but we are winning the campaign for the Land of Israel," Cabinet minister and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett said in a tweet as the evacuation began.

Ahmad Majdalani, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, welcomed the evacuation but condemned Netanyahu's announcement of further settlement building, saying that the expansion was "meant to finally kill the two-state solution."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.