An Outpost's Day in Court: Amona at the Israeli High Court of Justice
Recently there have been news reports about a case before the Israeli High Court of Justice regarding an outpost. What is the story?
On July 3, 2005, Peace Now and Peace Now's Settlement Watch Director Dror Etkes filed a joint petition with the Israeli High Court of Justice (akin to the U.S. Supreme Court) regarding 9 new structures in the illegal West Bank outpost which the settlers call "Amona" (named for a village in the Old Testament).
The petition was filed against Israe's Minister of Defense, Shaul Mofaz; the Commander of IDF forces in the West Bank; the Head of the Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz; and the Commander of the SHAI District of the Israeli Police, Maj. Gen. Yisrael Yitzhak. Peace Now's petition describes the law enforcement agencies' inaction regarding illegal construction at the site and concludes that this inaction represents "deliberate and conscious non-enforcement."
The petition asks the court to summon the four respondents to explain this failure to implement their legal responsibilities and "why they do not take all the measures required to demolish the 9 permanent buildings..." The petition also asks the court to order General Paz and General Yitzhak to "take all measures at their disposal to prevent the inhabitation of the villas and to enforce the cease and desist order issued in this matter regarding the work in progress, until judgment has been handed down regarding this petition."
Why did Peace Now take this case to court?
Currently there are over 100 outposts in the West Bank. All of them were erected without the authorization of the relevant governmental agencies, and some of them, like Amona, have been erected on private Palestinian property. There has been no serious or sustained Israeli government effort to deal with the issue.
There is nothing special about Amona - it is no different than any other outpost, and a legal case could be made against any of them. Peace Now chose to take the Amona case to the High Court of Justice only after exhausting all other legal avenues to stop the illegal construction. As noted in the Peace Now petition, "This is similar to a case wherein a man watches while a thief enters a bank every evening and removes the money deposited there during the day by the customers. Every evening, the theft is carried out and every evening, the observer calls the police and asks that they do something to stop the theft. Since the police do nothing, the observer has two choices - carry out a civilian arrest or appeal to the court." Peace Now chose the latter option.
Amona is a clear (and perhaps the best documented) illustration of the government failing to meet its legal obligations related to the outpost. The Government of Israel is on the record (in letters to Peace Now, in orders to the settlers, and in the Sasson Report - a detailed report on outposts prepared by Attorney Talia Sasson, from the Attorney General s office, at the request of Prime Minister Sharon) recognizing the illegality of the settlers actions; the land in question is acknowledged to be privately-owned Palestinian land, making the settlers actions all the more egregious under Israel law; and all relevant authorities in the Government of Israel have failed, systematically and over time, to take any meaningful efforts to execute their legal responsibilities and stop the settlers, thus permitting (and enabling) the settlers to expand their illegal foothold on this site.
How has Peace Now documented that the construction at this outpost is illegal?
In Fall 2004, after observing new construction at the outpost first from above (overflights) and confirmed with site visits, Peace Now sent an inquiry to the Civil Administration - the Israeli governmental authority in the West Bank - asking if the settlers had received authorization to undertake this construction. After a four-month delay, the Civil Administration responded that it had not authorized the project. Since then, Peace Now has been carrying out extensive correspondence with the Civil Administration in an effort to bring about necessary actions to apply the law against the construction which is still ongoing there.
In addition, the Sasson Report sets out four criteria, all of which must be met for a settlement to be legal. The Sasson Report notes, explicitly, that Amona fails on all four counts: it lacks a government decision for its establishment; no land has been allocated to it, and the land it is located on is privately-owned, rather than land designated by Israel as "state land" (i.e., land over which Israel recognizes no private ownership and considers itself the custodian); it lacks an approved town plan; and it lacks any designated jurisdiction over the area.
What has been the outcome of the case thus far?
The first reaction to the case came from the settlers at the site. In response to the Peace Now request that the High Court of Justice block anyone from moving into the 9 new structures, on July 4th (the day after the petition was filed) a group of Amona residents moved into the structures. This action violated an agreement made between the IDF Commander in the area and the head of the settlers regional council, who had agreed that construction would be frozen at the site and nobody would move into the homes until some sort of agreement was reached (an agreement that had already been breached by the settlers when they continued construction at the site).
Subsequently, on July 5th, the High Court of Justice issued an interim injunction ordering the Civil Administration and the SHAI District Police "to use every means available to them in order to prevent the habitation of the houses discussed in the petition and to enforce the stop work orders that were issued in this case. This interim injunction will be valid until this court rules otherwise." The injunction also notes that "the implementation of this order is subject to essential security concerns."
On July 7th, the IDF Commander in charge of the area presented the settlers with a 48 hour deadline for evacuation. On July 10th, settlers who had taken up residence in the 9 structures left voluntarily, vowing to seek retroactive legal approval for the project and the outpost.
The High Court of Justice has ordered the four respondents to file their preliminary responses to the Peace Now petition by the end of July; the Court will proceed with the case sometime after that.
Where is this outpost located?
Amona is located about 1 km. east of the settlement of Ofra, which in 1975 was the first settlement founded in the northern part of the West Bank. Ofra today is home to around 2400 people and remains one of the most ideological settlements and a symbol of the "Greater Israel" ideology. Ofra is located around 20 km. north of Jerusalem. According to the Amona webpage on the site of the Regional Council, Amona is a 3 minutes drive from Ofra and about a 25 minute drive from Jerusalem.
When was it established?
Amona is one of the oldest outposts in the West Bank, founded in 1995.
How much land is involved? Who owns it?
Today Amona spreads across an area of 384 dunams (about 96 acres), as the outpost s settlers have taken over surrounding land for agricultural purposes. All of this land is privately-owned Palestinian property, as noted in the Sasson Report - which was based on documents obtained from the Civil Administration.
Who paid to establish it?
According to the Sasson Report, Amona was established and constructed with monies originating from the Ministry of Construction and Housing, which paid, over a period of years, an estimated NIS 2.15 million (around $476,000) for the outpost s infrastructure.
What been its rate of expansion, in terms of land and people, at the site?
Like most of the illegal outposts in the West Bank, Amona grew very gradually. The site where Amona sits was originally, in 1995, the site of what the settlers called an "emergency water tank." Former Knesset member Mossi Raz recalls that the first time he visited Amona in the late summer of 1996, in his capacity as then-Secretary General of Peace Now, he saw a few (6-7 perhaps) mobile homes and a small children s playground. Over time the number of the mobile homes, and the space they occupied, grew into a large area under the de facto control of Amona's settlers. Additional land was taken, supposedly for security reasons, and turned into agricultural lands for the outpost. In 2000, a road connecting the outpost to Ofra (the only means of getting to Amona) was paved by the Israeli Government, and soon after that the Israeli Government connected the outpost to the national electricity grid (up until that time the settlers had been relying on portable generators). In the year 2002, Amona s settlers published a pamphlet advertising the community to potential newcomers, saying: "We are a young community of 20 families."
Amona s expansion kicked into higher gear in April 2004, when the inhabited outpost of Ginot Arye, located south of Ofra, was evacuated, and its caravans transferred to two points east of Ofra. Consequently, two new outposts were created. That same week, construction began on the nine permanent buildings in Amona, leading some observers to wonder if these events (evacuating the outpost, transferring the caravans, and constructing permanent buildings in Amona) were part of an unwritten agreement between the settlers and the Ministry of Defense. Peace Now documented the new construction and sent an inquiry to the Civil Administration (the Israeli governmental authority in the West Bank) asking if the settlers had received authorization to undertake this construction. After a four-month delay, the Civil Administration responded that it had not authorized the project. Since then, Peace Now has been carrying out extensive correspondence with the Civil Administration in an effort to bring about necessary actions to apply the law against the construction which is still ongoing there. The rate of construction peaked during the first months of 2005. In fact, the frames for the nine permanent buildings were completed in March 2005. Since then, work on the site has been continuing, especially during unconventional hours: weekends, holidays, late afternoons and evenings.
Today Amona settlers claim that the outpost is home to over 30 families, which means that probably there are between 100-120 persons who live today in Amona. Currently Amana, the building company associated with the settlement movement, is marketing the new villas, with a video cassette extolling the virtues of life in the outpost.
What sort of structures and development are found at the site?
There are 50-60 structures in Amona today. Most of them are mobile homes. The petition which Peace Now filed with the Israeli High Court of Justice addresses the construction of 9 permanent luxury homes, part of a single project initiated in April 2004 and recently completed. In addition, Amona settlers have established agricultural areas. The Amona webpage on the regional council website boasts: "In recent years widespread agricultural activity is developing in Amona. Orchards were planted, olive trees and a large and fertile grape vineyard. Also established were a goat pen and dairy whose excellent products are marketed in all the nearby towns. Currently an art neighborhood and the first "build your home" neighborhood are being built. Temporary housing units are available for immediate absorption [of new settlers]." The site also notes that the outpost has a synagogue and mikva (ritual bath), a day care center and a kindergarten, and a playroom and playground.
Does the site include basic services?
As is the case with most of the outposts, electricity, water, telephone, and other basic services are supplied to Amona settlers by the same companies who supply them in Israel and to Israelis in the West Bank, with the approval (active or tacit) of the relevant Israeli government agencies (and with the Israeli government bearing the costs for related infrastructure). Amona is connected to the water system of Ofra, and the Electric Company has connected the homes to the regional electrical network. A sewage pipe was laid from Ofra to the edge of the hill and connected the residents' homes to Ofra's sewage system - a system that dumps the waste into a neighboring Palestinian field. Schools, postal facilities, and medical facilities (as well as retail facilities) are close-at-hand in the settlement of Ofra.
Have permits ever been issued for any of the development at the site?
Has action ever been taken to halt development at the site?
In October 2004, the Government of Israel issued demolition orders for the nine homes that are the subject of the Peace Now petition. These orders were never implemented. Subsequently, in 2005 the Israeli government issued an order requiring that construction in Amona be halted. This order was ignored, and no meaningful punitive action was taken against those responsible for the construction.
The Peace Now petition describes the weak enforcement by Israeli authorities in this matter: while the Civil Administration spokesperson wrote to Peace Now that enforcement measures including "confiscating equipment and building materials" were being carried out, Peace Now later discovered that this measure was limited in its impact. According to documents discovered at the site, the police confiscated: one plastic tub, four spatulas, one hammer, one screwdriver, one level, one brush, sandpaper, and one ladder.
Does the IDF provide security for the outpost?
Yes. The IDF provides security along the perimeter of the outpost and a few soldiers are always present in the outpost itself. In addition, there is an IDF base located just outside of the settlement of Ofra, whose soldiers are involved in providing for the day-to-day security needs of the outpost. (Note: Out of concern for the safety of the people living - albeit illegally - at Amona, this document deliberately omits more detailed information about IDF security arrangements at the site).
For more information:
Amona webpage on the site of the Regional Council (Hebrew only)
Background information on this legal action
Translation of the petition filed by Peace Now before the Israeli High Court of Justice. (Microsoft Word file)
News accounts of the court proceedings
News reports of the settlers' evacuation of the nine homes
Image of the IDF Civil Administration's letter to Peace Now clarifying that the construction at the outpost is illegal (Hebrew)
Image of the Demolition Order that has not yet been carried out (Hebrew/Arabic)