In West Bank, Israel “replacing one land theft by another”
Christmas Day is the court-ordered deadline to evacuate around 330 settlers from the Amona outpost. The colony is built on the farmland of Palestinian families who still live nearby, north of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.
Eighty-year-old Maryam Hamad, who lives in the neighboring Palestinian village of Silwad, owns six acres there, where she once cultivated wheat.
She has not been able to visit her land for 20 years, since Amona was established in the mid-1990s. She expects to return to the land when the settlers leave.
If the evacuation is implemented, Palestinian are at risk of revenge attacks by settlers.
After first refusing to peacefully evacuate, the settlers of Amona only conceded when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video on Facebook promising them to crack down on what he calls illegal building in Palestinian neighborhoods in present-day Israel.
The government is preparing a $36 million budget to evacuate the outpost and generously compensate the settlers for the move.
The group says the compensation sends a clear message: that “crime and threats pay.”
“Willing to crush basic rights”
Hamad told *Haaretz,” “My feeling for the land is something that only farmers could understand. I’m dreaming of the day I can return. I wouldn’t trade this land for its weight in gold.”
But Amona – one of around 100 so-called unauthorized outposts – looks like it will be the exception.
The Israeli government is now pushing through the so-called Regulation Bill, legislation that will retroactively legalize all Israeli outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land.
But even the 41 families of Amona won’t go far: the Israeli government has offered them a new allotment of land, still in the occupied West Bank, that is also owned by Palestinian families.
“The Israeli government is replacing one land theft by another,” Peace Now said. “It is willing to crush basic rights of Palestinians, bend Israeli law and violate international law – all in order to satisfy 41 families who knowingly settled on private Palestinian lands.”
Israel’s Regulation Bill has been greeted with condemnatory statements from the United Nations, the European Union and Israeli politicians from the so-called opposition parties.
They all warn the bill sounds the death knell for the two-state solution. But these apocalyptic pronouncements overshadow the government’s years-long process of ushering the outposts into the folds of Israeli legitimacy.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, following the signing of the Oslo accords, Israel stopped officially establishing new settlements, but began funding and supporting settler groups who colonized West Bank hilltops under the pretext of expanding existing settlements.
In 1998, then-foreign minister Ariel Sharon called on Israelis to “run and grab as many [Palestinian] hilltops as they can to enlarge the [Jewish] settlements because everything we take now will stay ours… Everything we don’t grab will go to them.”
Though these “outposts” were portrayed as rogue, the Israeli government was essential to their survival. The legal status of “unauthorized outposts” and “settlements” has no distinction outside Israel: all Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law.
In 2005, the government commissioned former state prosecutor Talia Sasson to investigate the outposts.
Sasson found that at least 105 outposts had been established “in blatant violation of the law” and documented how government officials in the housing, defense and other ministries helped to establish them.
The Israeli government did not just provide material support to these outposts, it also began to defend their legality.
This August, before Israel’s governing coalition introduced the Regulation Bill, The New York Times revealed that one-third of the outposts had already been retroactively legalized or were on their way.
“Netanyahu’s government in 2011 had already quietly introduced what it called a new ‘combined policy,’” The New York Times reports.
“The idea was that Israel would remove settlement structures built on privately owned Palestinian land, but, in areas that Israel has declared as state land, would instead ‘regulate the planning status’ — or, in other words, legalize construction after the fact.”
According to Peace Now, the vast majority of the outposts are built on privately owned Palestinian land.
This policy was quietly announced through state responses to anti-settlement petitions in the courts. In fact, settlers have credited anti-settlement lawsuits with pushing the government to commit to supporting the outposts.
But except for a few high-profile cases, the government left most outposts on private land alone, and in the case of Amona, defended their right to remain.
Two years ago the Israeli government lost its final battle in the high court to keep Amona settlers on Palestinians’ land. The high court ruled that settlements could not be founded on private Palestinian land and gave the settlers two years to relocate.
In prior cases, the court has ruled that Israeli settlements can be built on “state land.” The distinction between state and private land – like the distinction between outposts and settlements – is an invention of Israeli law to enable the colonization of the West Bank.
Accordingly, Israel has recently been aggressively reclassifying private Palestinian land across the occupied West Bank as “state land.”
The government’s defeat in the Amona case in 2014 may have disappointed the Israeli government, but it did not derail a process it had begun several years before: to retroactively legalize scores of outposts throughout the West Bank.
The court defeat may even have helped the Regulation Bill by mobilizing the parliament against the judiciary. On 14 November, a day after the high court rejected the government’s request to postpone the Amona evacuation, ministers unanimously approved the bill.
Peace Now does not believe the timing was a coincidence.
Far-right Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich, who co-sponsored the bill, said the “legal terror of left-wing organizations against settling the land has come to an end.”
The bill must still pass three more readings in Israel’s parliament, and Israel’s attorney general says it breaches international law and he would not be able to defend it in the high court.
The government announced the final readings would not take place until after US President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated in late January.
But with or without the bill, there will likely be no let up to Palestinians being forced off their land and terrorized by the settlers and the army that protects them.