The illegal Israeli outpost of Amona explained

A court order to evict Jewish settlers who are illegally residing on private Palestinian farms poses a big challenge for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Photo by: AP (Archive )
Photo by: AP (Archive )

The last time Israeli authorities tried to demolish illegal houses at the Amona outpost in 2006, hundreds of Jewish settlers and their supporters clashed with riot police.

Updated Nov 22, 2016

In 1998. Benjamin Netanyahu was serving his first term as the Prime Minister of Israel. But he was under the international spotlight for his concurrent role as minister for housing.

Meanwhile, Jewish ultra-nationalists had forcefully occupied private Palestinian farms in the West Bank and established an outpost called Amona. And Israel was facing growing international pressure to address the issue which had dragged on for the past two years.

But that didn't stop the housing ministry from releasing funds for the construction of a road in the area. Years later, the Israeli settlers would point to the same road project to legitimise their claim over the occupied Palestinian land.

Now, nearly twenty years down the road, all of that is coming back to challenge Netanyahu, who is once again Israel's Prime Minister.

An order by the Supreme Court of Israel to remove the illegal Amona outpost has pitted him against his own Likud Party parliamentarians and other right-wing coalition politicians who are part of his government.

As the developments surrounding Amona unfold, here are some facts that explain the controversy.

What is the Amona outpost? 

Amona, named after biblical village HaAmonai, meaning village of the Amonites, is a cluster of trailers and prefabricated houses inhabited by 200 people from 40 Jewish families. Located on the Tall Asur mountain, the first settlers set up camp there in November 1996.

It is the biggest of the 100 outposts spread across the West Bank that Israel occupied during the Middle East war in 1967.

The makeshift houses in Amona are illegal even under Israeli law but the settlers say the fact that the authorities provided them with civic facilities like electricity and a road network justifies their position. (AP)

The use of the term 'outpost' to describe these neighbourhoods is significant.

Outposts are illegal even under Israeli law. That's in contrast to 'settlements'. Israel insists settlements are legitimate as they are made up of houses built on land that Israelis have either purchased from Palestinians or that has not been claimed by anyone.

The United Nations considers all the outposts and settlements built on Palestinian lands illegal.

But the illegal outposts are supported by right-wing government officials who have provided the settlers with electricity and other facilities over the years.

The Israeli settlers are not necessarily people who cannot afford homes elsewhere in Israel. Among the settlers are doctors, lawyers and teachers.

Who owns the land?

The occupied land belongs to 10 Palestinian farming families who live in the villages of Silwad, Taybeh and Ein Yabrud on the surrounding hills.

They have been driven out by the settlers and Israeli soldiers who make it difficult for Palestinians to work in the area, rights groups say.

Israeli soldiers routinely stop Palestinian farmers from cultivating on the land that belongs to them. (AP)

In a landmark 2014 judgement, Israel's Supreme Court declared that the Amona outpost was built on private Palestinian property that cannot be occupied.

"It's hard to state the exact size of the area where the outpost has been built," Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the human rights organisation Yesh Din told TRT World.

"There is no fence. So we don’t know for sure where the boundary starts and where it ends."

The legality question

In its ruling, the Supreme Court ordered the Israeli government to remove illegal houses at the Amona outpost by December 25, 2016.

The order followed a decade-long legal battle. The case of the Palestinian families was represented by Israel's anti-settlement watchdog 'Peace Now'. It first approached the courts in 2004.

Since then, the settlers, backed by their legal teams, have come up with various explanations to justify the occupation during the proceedings. At times they have argued the land was a barren stretch where Palestinians never lived.

Attallah Hammad, Mariam Hammad and Issa Zaid are among the Palestinians who used to cultivate the land on which the Amona outpost has been built. (Yesh Din)

"That was true. Palestinians never actually lived there. But for decades they had cultivated that land," says Grossman.

The petitioners submitted documents and photographs during the court proceeding that showed Palestinian farmers were growing wheat and other vegetables there as late as 1996.

When the first time settlers moved in they used the pretext of Amona being an archaeological site.

The settlers even tried to hoodwink the court by claiming they had purchased the private Palestinian property. The claim was rejected after an investigation found the property purchase deeds were fake.

At other times the settlers said the land belonged to the Israeli military.

Troubled history

Settlers at the Amona outpost have resisted and avoided eviction before.

When authorities tried to demolish a few permanent houses at Amona in 2006, hundreds of protestors barricaded themselves behind barbed wires.

 A previous attempt, in 2006, to evict the illegal settlers led to a hostile standoff between them and police.  An upcoming eviction could turn violent with around 20,000 Jewish supporters expected to turn up and oppose police. (AP)

The clash was violent – the settlers bombarded riot police with bricks and nail-spiked potatoes.

Amona is significant because right wing, pro-occupation Israelis fear the removal of the outpost could set in motion demand for similar action elsewhere.

The settlers and their supporters have been preparing for a big standoff for the upcoming eviction. Around 20,000 people are expected to come in a show of support for Amona settlers if authorities try to remove them.

A test case for Netanyahu

The Amona episode has put Netanyahu in a tight corner. 

Members of parliament from his own party are supporting a bill that is trying to block the court order which is calling for the removal of the outpost.

Lawmakers have already started the process to pass a Regulation Bill that would make Amona legal. The bill is yet to be approved by the parliament but Netanyahu and his top aide are warning against it. 

Israeli anti-settlement rights organisations such as Yesh Din and Peace Now have worked hard to represent Palestinians in court and tell their story to the world. (AP)

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has warned the proposal to make Amona a legal settlement contradicts international conventions that Israel has signed.

It also goes against Israel’s own property law that guarantees protection to the rightful owner.

Netanyahu is under pressure to kill the bill. If he doesn’t then he would alienate himself from the international community, says former Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni.

Author: Saad Hasan