Israel Evacuates West Bank Outpost After High Court Order

  • Pressure builds on PM Netanyahu to build in Jewish settlements
  • Parliament due to hold final vote on settlement bill Feb. 6

Thousands of Israeli security officers evacuated most of the homes in a West Bank settlement outpost as debate simmered over a controversial proposal to legalize unauthorized construction elsewhere in contested territory.

Police, unarmed and sporting winter jackets and hats on one of the year’s coldest days, could be seen on live television evacuating mostly young people from Amona, a hilltop northeast of Ramallah. While most of the pro-settlement activists were singing and chanting against the removal of some 40 homes, some protesters hurled rocks, injuring 20 police officers, according to police spokeswoman Luba Samri. At least 12 protesters were arrested and police officials said they expected to clear the site by morning.

Settlers talk to Israeli police in Amona, Feb. 1.

Photographer: Oded Balilty/AP Photos

The operation came as settlement backers press Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ramp up building efforts in the West Bank now that Barack Obama, who fiercely opposed any Jewish construction beyond Israel’s 1967 borders, is out of the White House. Netanyahu is slated to visit U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington later this month, with the issue of settlements likely to be on the agenda.

Since Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, Israeli officials have announced plans to build nearly 6,000 apartments in areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem that Palestinians hope to make part of a future state. The Trump administration hasn’t denounced the plans, as previous U.S. administrations have done, but is moving slowly on a controversial campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, out of deference to Arab sensitivities. Both Israelis and Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital.

The evacuation of Amona was meant to be consensual after Israel’s government reached a solution last month to relocate residents to an adjacent plot, but the deal fell through after a Palestinian raised ownership claims to the area. While Israel’s Supreme Court deliberates the Palestinian claim, the eviction was necessary under a Feb. 8 deadline set by the court.

“The government’s hands were tied. After all, it’s bound by the Supreme Court decision,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “At the end of the day, the coalition partners are happy with this government so no one is going to rock the boat too much on this.”

Retroactive Legalization

Thousands of Israelis live in unauthorized enclaves like Amona that were built without following formal procedures, though government officials often knew they were being erected and provided infrastructure hookups and military protection. In addition, Israel has built more than 120 authorized West Bank settlements, housing about 400,000 people, which it considers legal but which the United Nations Security Council last month deemed a “flagrant violation” of international law.

Netanyahu earlier this week pledged to advance a law that would provide a lasting arrangement for West Bank settlements by legalizing about 4,000 homes in unauthorized outposts built on Palestinian-owned land. Construction on private Palestinian land -- as opposed to unclaimed land -- is prohibited under a 1979 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit has said he can’t defend some provisions of the bill against legal challenges. The bill is due to come up for a final parliamentary vote Feb. 6.

The legislation declares that the outposts were established in good faith under the belief that the land was not privately owned. It sets up a compensation system under which Palestinians would be given alternative properties or be paid an annual sum equal to 125 percent of the potential lease value. Palestinians describe the bill as a land grab aimed at facilitating Israeli annexation of the West Bank.

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