Pales­tini­ans await Is­raeli out­post’s evac­u­a­tion

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - REGION - By Tia Gold­en­berg and Mo­hammed Daragh­meh

SIL­WAD, Pales­tine: Maryam Ab­del-Ka­reem gazed long­ingly onto the plot of oc­cu­pied West Bank land she in­her­ited from her fa­ther. Once planted with toma­toes, cu­cum­bers and okra, the windswept hill­top now hosts the white trailer homes of an Is­raeli set­tle­ment out­post that took root more than 20 years ago.

Now, Ab­del-Ka­reem and other Pales­tinian landown­ers are set to re­claim the prop­erty they watched stripped from them, hop­ing to fi­nally put to rest a bit­ter, years­long le­gal saga on Feb. 8 – the lat­est cour­tordered dead­line for the evac­u­a­tion of the Amona out­post.

“I’ve never lost hope,” said Ab­del-Ka­reem, 82, peer­ing out across a rocky val­ley to­ward Amona. “It’s as if you have this child and you hug him and love him, and you don’t want to let him go. The land is like this to me, more pre­cious than a child.”

Amona is one of about 100 out­posts across the West Bank that Is­rael con­sid­ers il­le­gal but tol­er­ates and of­ten al­lows to flour­ish. It was es­tab­lished in the mid-1990s, when a small group of set­tlers, qui­etly beck­oned by gov­ern­ment-funded in­fras­truc­ture, erected car­a­vans on the rugged knoll.

Amona now houses a syn­a­gogue, a bas­ket­ball court and about 300 res­i­dents. It be­came a sym­bol of set­tler de­fi­ance when Is­rael de­mol­ished nine of its struc­tures in 2006, spark­ing vi­o­lent clashes be­tween set­tlers and Is­raeli se­cu­rity forces.

In 2008, the Pales­tinian landown­ers, rep­re­sented by lawyers from the Is­raeli le­gal rights group Yesh Din, pe­ti­tioned the Supreme Court to have the out­post re­moved, set­ting off a years­long strug­gle.

The state agreed to peace­fully de­mol­ish the out­post by the end of 2012 but the move was re­peat­edly de­layed. What seemed like a fi­nal rul­ing in 2014, declar­ing the land pri­vate Pales­tinian prop­erty, gave Is­rael un­til Dec. 25, 2016, to carry out the evac­u­a­tion. But un­der fierce pres­sure from set­tlers and their sup­port­ers in Par­lia­ment, the gov­ern­ment se­cured a 45-day ex­ten­sion un­til early Fe­bru­ary. There is still no al­ter­nate hous­ing so­lu­tion for the 40 fam­i­lies liv­ing in Amona.

The landown­ers watched with frus­tra­tion as their lands were taken. Yesh Din says re­ports about land theft filed with Is­raeli po­lice in the late 1990s went un­ad­dressed and Pales­tinian at­tempts to draw aware­ness to the is­sue were thwarted. In a 1998 let­ter pro­vided by Yesh Din, Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties warned Pales­tini­ans against hold­ing Fri­day prayers in Amona, say­ing it would con­sti­tute an “il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity” that could spark “a con­fronta­tion with res­i­dents.”

The out­post has dom­i­nated head­lines in Is­rael and the set­tlers’ fate has posed a se­ri­ous risk to Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s coali­tion, af­ter the pro-set­tler Jewish Home party threat­ened to walk out over it.

The landown­ers are per­plexed by a pro­posed so­lu­tion to move the set­tlers to a north­ern perch on the same hill­top, an of­fer that is likely to face le­gal hur­dles. Yesh Din said that keep­ing the Amona res­i­dents on the same hill­top could block Pales­tinian ac­cess to their land.

“It’s hard for them. They went through a lot of highs and lows,” said Gi­lad Gross­man, a spokesman for Yesh Din. “They won every le­gal bat­tle. They did ev­ery­thing by the book and ... every time there is an­other at­tempt to out­smart them.”

In ad­di­tion to the unau­tho­rized out­posts, there are some 120 Jewish set­tle­ments Is­rael con­sid­ers le­gal. Both set­tle­ments and out­posts are op­posed by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity as well as the Pales­tini­ans.

Last month, the set­tle­ments were at the cen­ter of a show­down be­tween Is­rael and its clos­est ally, the U.S., at the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, where the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion al­lowed a res­o­lu­tion to pass that chal­lenged the le­gal­ity of the set­tle­ments. The episode marked a low point in the frosty ties be­tween Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Ne­tanyahu.

U.S. of­fi­cials said that af­ter pre­vi­ously ve­to­ing anti-Is­rael res­o­lu­tions, they felt com­pelled to ab­stain be­cause of con­tin­ued Is­raeli set­tle­ment con­struc­tion and a re­cent ef­fort to retroac­tively le­gal­ize dozens of il­le­gal out­posts in ex­change for com­pen­sa­tion for the orig­i­nal Pales­tinian landown­ers.

While Is­raeli hard-lin­ers and set­tlers ap­pear em­bold­ened by the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, who has crit­i­cized the U.N. res­o­lu­tion and in­di­cated he will be more tol­er­ant of set­tle­ment ac­tiv­ity, it ap­pears to be too late for Amona.

The out­post le­gal­iza­tion bill was orig­i­nally meant to find a le­gal loop­hole that could keep Amona in­tact. But it was re­moved from the bill af­ter a coali­tion mem­ber re­fused to sup­port a law that would cir­cum­vent a Supreme Court de­ci­sion. Af­ter win­ning ini­tial ap­proval last month, the leg­is­la­tion is stuck in a com­mit­tee be­ing pre­pared for fi­nal par­lia­men­tary ap­proval. Jus­tice Min­is­ter Ayelet Shaked’s of­fice said the tim­ing for the vote re­mains un­clear.

The set­tlers dis­pute the court’s rul­ing, and say an $80,000 com­pen­sa­tion claim granted to some of the Pales­tinian landown­ers in a civil suit in 2014 should negate the case. None­the­less, they have told the court they will peace­fully leave their homes by the dead­line with or with­out a gov­ern­ment hous­ing so­lu­tion.

“The state of Is­rael is drag­ging its feet on this whole thing and is not le­gal­iz­ing a set­tle­ment that it could have eas­ily le­gal­ized. Un­for­tu­nately it will be a tragedy when in some 40 days I am sup­posed to move for no rea­son,” said Eli Green­berg, a spokesman for the out­post.

With the set­tlers gird­ing for an evac­u­a­tion, the Pales­tini­ans are cau­tiously plan­ning for a re­turn to the hill­top. “We want to re­plant it. It was planted with grapes, now we will plant it with olives,” said Atal­lah Hamed, 64, who said he owns about eight acres of Amona land. “We want to make it green again.”

Ab­del-Ka­reem points to land oc­cu­pied by the set­tlers of Amona in the West Bank.

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