Settlements in Focus - Vol. 2, Issue 3: Amona Redux

Update on the first illegal outpost with permanent housing to be demolished as a result of Peace Now's petition to the Israeli court.

What is the timeline of legal decisions that led up to the recent demolitions at the illegal outpost of Amona?

The illegal outpost of Amona was first constructed in late 1995. Demolition orders for nine structures at Amona - all built illegally on land that is privately owned by (and appropriately registered to) Palestinians - were issued in October 2004 by the Civil Administration.

July 2005: The legal action surrounding Amona opened on July 3rd, 2005, when Peace Now filed a petition with the Israeli High Court charging Israeli authorities with failing to implement stop-work orders at the site, and with failing to implement demolition orders issues in October 2004 regarding illegally built buildings at the site. In response to the Peace Now petition, on July 5th, 2005, the High Court of Justice issued an interim injunction requiring the Civil Administration and the District Police to prevent the habitation of structures in question and to enforce the previously issued stop-work orders. Also in response to the Peace Now petition, settlers began moving into the illegal structures. Faced with expulsion, on July 10th the settlers left the houses.

August 2005: On August 4th, 2005, the State committed to the High Court of Justice that it would implement demolition orders against the nine illegally built permanent dwellings at Amona after the completion of the Gaza disengagement.

November 2005: At the beginning of November 2005 - two months after the completion of the disengagement from Gaza and apparently after pressure from the High Court - the State Attorney's Office informed the Court that Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had decided that the demolition orders would be implemented by the end of January 2006. On November 24th, the High Court of Justice instructed the State to inform the Court by January 5th, 2006, of the status of the State's preparations to carry out the demolitions.

January 2006: At the beginning of January 2006, settlers, some of whom had moved back into the illegally built structures in Amona following their "voluntary" departure in July 2005, began a series of stalling tactics in court. On January 3rd they filed a petition under the name "the Agricultural Joint Community of Settlement Ltd - Amona." The petition asked the High Court of Justice to dismiss the original Peace Now petition, since Peace Now had not included among its respondents either this heretofore unknown group or two of the current residents of the outpost.

On January 18th the High Court of Justice held a hearing regarding the original Peace Now petition. During the hearing the Court made two decisions: first, it vacated the original Peace Now petition, since the State had clearly indicated its intention to demolish buildings in question. In doing so, the settlers' frivolous petition became irrelevant. In addition, the Court issued an injunction blocking the demolition of the 9 structures for another week, in order to give the settlers the opportunity to file any additional petitions.

The settlers responded by, not surprisingly, filing a petition against the demolitions. On January 29th the High Court rejected this petition, clearing the last hurdle, or removing the last pretext, blocking the State from carrying out the demolitions. In rejecting the settlers' petition, Justice Michael Cheshin was strongly rebuked the settlers, noting that, "I visited the Amona website, and it turns out that people are calling for violent resistance if the petition is rejected...The court does not aid whoever judges himself. These calls are not against the British occupier, but against the elected authorities of the State of Israel. The court is not a grocery store and the petitioners must bow their heads and accept the verdict. To say that they will engage in a violent battle if the verdict goes against them constitutes contempt of court."

February 2006: Settler stalling tactics continued until the very last moment. At 3am on February 1st - after Israeli security forces had already begun to mobilize around Amona, the settlers contacted High Court Justice Elyakim Rubenstein to file yet another petition to stop the demolitions. The petition proposed that the Court block the demolition order and that the settlers would make plans to move the illegal structures onto land that was not privately owned. Rubenstein granted an injunction against the demolitions - leading to celebrations among some of the settlers. By 9:00 a.m. a special three-judge panel had convened and voted 2-1 to reject the petition (with Rubenstein voting in the minority). In considering this final tactic by the settlers, Justice Ayala Procaccia also rebuked the settlers for their tactics and their timing, stating "Why was there a need to wait for the last day, with forces already on the ground, and only then come up with proposals that may be nice, but the timing is very, very difficult. This entire move should have been undertaken several months ago, before there was a concrete date for the evacuation."

Finally, on February 1st following hours of serious clashes with settlers and settler supporters, security forces succeeded in evacuating settlers and protesters from the nine illegally-built structures at Amona and implementing the October 2004 demolition orders.

For more details on the history of Amona, see Settlements in Focus, Vol. 1, Issue 6.

Does this mean the outpost of Amona is gone?

No. The demolition orders dealt only with a small area of Amona. The rest of this illegal outpost - consisting of more than 30 families living in mobile homes and a few semi-permanent houses - was not impacted by the legal case. Moreover, while the basis for the demolitions was the fact that the nine homes in question were illegally built on privately owned Palestinian land, even after the demolitions the land is still not accessible to its Palestinian owners.

Why didn't the orders apply to the entire illegal outpost?

As discussed in a previous edition of Settlements in Focus (Vol. 2, Issue 2), the Israeli High Court has historically considered settlement-related issues to be political matters, rather than legal ones, and has thus refrained from getting involved or ruling on the legality of the settlers' actions. This position has been based on, among other things, the premise that settlement activities do not involve the confiscation of privately-owned land. However, in the case of Amona, and specifically the site on which the nine demolished structures were located, the court was faced with settler actions on privately-owned land (whose ownership was clearly established). Recognizing that Amona presented the High Court with a new and serious challenge - one in which settler behavior was so egregious that it would be difficult for the High Court to ignore it - the Peace Now petition intentionally focused only on the area of the outpost where the settlers had infringed on recognized property rights of the Palestinian owners, and had done so egregiously (i.e., with the construction of permanent structures). As a result, the Court's decision only dealt with these specific structures.

Peace Now views the Amona case as a test case, and is encouraged by the fact that the High Court determined in the end that the rule of law must take precedent over political issues - as evidenced clearly when the High Court rejected the arguments of the settlers' lawyer on January 29th, 2006, when he argued that the case is a political one and that carrying out the demolitions so close to an Israeli election would hurt Israel's democracy. Peace Now is already using the Amona case as a precedent in other legal action against outposts, and it is hoped that the Court will continue to deal with the issue of outposts not as political issues but mainly as legal ones.

How bad were the clashes between settlers and security forces at Amona?

Settlers began gathering their supporters at Amona overnight on February 1st, and by the morning, when the High Court rejected the settlers' final petition to stop the demolitions, thousands of protesters, including many young people, had gathered at the site. As reported on the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth's website, security forces arriving in the area at 3:00 a.m. "were greeted with a barrage of rocks, oil, paint, and water." Regarding the actual operation, the paper reported that:

"Security forces completed the takeover of nine homes in the illegal West Bank outpost of Amona Wednesday following three and a half hours of unprecedented clashes with settlers. The evacuation degenerated into a violent confrontation between thousands of settlers and thousands of soldiers and police officers. By early afternoon hours, 200 people were reported to have sustained injuries, including 80 members of the security forces, most of them police officers. At least one police officer sustained very serious head wounds and was airlifted to hospital after he lost consciousness. Knesset Members Effie Eitam and Arieh Eldad, who arrived at the site to support the settlers' struggle, were also wounded [another right-wing Knesset Member, Benjamin Elon, was also injured]."

In addition, around 50 people were arrested.

What was the public reaction to the demolitions and the confrontations?

In general the Israeli public has supported the evacuation and demolition of the illegal structures in the Amona outpost, and has generally blamed the settlers for the violence that occurred at the site.

- A "Dialogue" poll of adult Israelis (including Israeli Arabs) carried out on January 31st for Ha'aretz newspaper and Israel's Channel 10 (and published on February 2nd), asked people if they "support or oppose the forceful evacuation of the Amona outpost." Of those polled, 58.8% said "support," 22.1% said "oppose," and 19.1% gave some other answer.

- A "Dahaf" poll of 500 adult Israelis (including Israeli Arabs) for Yedioth Ahronoth carried out on February 1st (and published on February 3rd), asked people, "should the illegal outpost Amona have been evacuated?" 58% of those polled answered "yes," and 34% answered "no." The poll also asked, "Who is responsible for the violence that broke out during the course of the evacuation?" 57% of those polled responded "settlers," 16% responded "army/police," 10% responded "both sides," and 4% blamed "Olmert/government."

- A "Geocartography" poll commissioned by Army Radio and carried out the morning of February 2nd asked people to assess blame for the confrontations and violence at Amona (with those polled apparently permitted to select more than one answer). Of those polled, 70% blamed the violence at Amona on "past Israeli governments who encouraged the settler enterprise," 64% blamed the settler leadership (the Yesha Council), 57% blamed the rabbis who indoctrinated the protesting youth, 51% blamed the Israeli government for not finding a peaceful solution, 39% blamed the violence on settlers and their supporters, and 31% said the blame was shared by the settlers and the police. Of those polled, 63% said that they "understood the settlers' sense of betrayal" but "their use of violence was unjustified."

What does the violent resistance in Amona mean for future actions against outposts?

Some observers believe that the settlers - and in particular the segment of the settler youth that is remains energized, alienated, and angered by the Gaza disengagement - deliberately sought to raise the stakes at Amona by engaging in far more violent resistance than in the past. In doing so, they wanted to send a message about the political costs of any future settlement evacuations in the West Bank.

Early indications are, however, that their tactics may have backfired. Acting Prime Minister Olmert responded forcefully to the reports of settlers attacking Israeli soldiers, stating at a Knesset meeting that "This is a phenomenon that cannot continue or be accepted. When bricks are thrown at the heads of soldiers and police officers, a line has clearly been crossed." He reportedly went on to say that, "This is reaching a scope we haven't seen before. This was an organized activity on the part of the settlers for political ends. The State of Israel will not tolerate it."

Other senior officials took a similarly hard line, including Cabinet Minister Roni Bar-On, who stated that, "We will not allow any law-breaker, even if he is a member of harm the State of Israel as a state of law. We restrained ourselves in Gush Katif. We restrained ourselves in Hebron, in Yitzhar, and in outposts for a long time, even if people there physically injured security forces. That's finished. The era of restraint has come to an end. From now on, this will be a nation of law, which enforces the law." He also said that, "Whoever breaks the law, whoever harms the army, whoever harms the police, will pay the price, and immediately. No one in the State of Israel will be above the law," he concluded. Bar-On also criticized settler leaders for cowardice in "hiding behind children" and inciting them to climb onto rooftops and attack security forces evacuating Amona.

The American Jewish newspaper, The Forward, commented on January 27th, 2006:

"...The practice of placing the cause above the law extends back to the earliest days of building settlements beyond the 1967 border. The outposts did, however, get a particular push from Sharon, longtime patron of the settler movement. While serving as foreign minister in 1998, Sharon declared on Israel Radio that settlers 'should run, should grab more hills, expand the territory.... Everything we don't grab will be in their hands.' It is either unnerving or reassuring, therefore, to hear Ra'anan Gissin, Sharon's longtime media adviser and now Olmert's spokesman, explain by phone that there is 'a matter of principle' of 'the rule of law.' ...The settlers 'must decide, philosophically, what kind of state they want,' he said. Placing ideals over law risks a return to the state of nature, to anarchy. 'They need to be read the liberal, democratic thinkers," Gissin said, "and then they'll understand.' Gissin's lecture is just one sign that the political current has shifted. Even hawkish Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu expressed support this week, in a policy speech, for 'dismantling outposts that lack legal approval,' promising that he would do so if elected prime minister..."

All of this notwithstanding, it was also reported in this same news cycle that Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni has begun secret talks with the Settlers Council to try to reach an agreement concerning outposts. Under such an agreement, settlers would voluntarily dismantle several illegal outposts, and in return would attempt to obtain retroactive approval for the remaining outposts with legal problems. Such a compromise would not be without precedent. In October 1999 then-Prime Minister Barak was faced with the existence of 42 illegal outposts. Following negotiations with settlers, Prime Minister Barak chose a "compromise" course under which only 12 of outposts were evacuated, all but one of which were uninhabited, and permitting other arrangements to be made for the others.

Is there going to be an investigation into the violence that occurred during the operation?

Israelis across the political spectrum were shocked and appalled by the images of violence coming out of Amona, images that included settlers attacking police officers, police officers attacking settlers, and injured people - adults and youths, soldiers and settlers. Criticism has been leveled from across the political spectrum against Acting Prime Minister Olmert and senior military officials for failing to prepare properly for the confrontations, and some have argued that the experience in Gaza's Gush Katif, where evacuations were carried out with relatively little violence by the settlers or force by soldiers, is proof that what happened at Amona is at least partly the fault of the Israeli government.

Settlers and their supporters immediately accused the Israeli forces of using excessive force. MK Effie Eitam, who was injured at the site, told the press the confrontations were "a pogrom against young people." MK Aryeh Eldad, also injured at the site, complained that the soldiers where treating the settlers "like they wouldn't treat Arabs." Settlers are circulating videos and photos which they say substantiate their claims.

For its part, the Israeli government has rejected these accusations and has blasted the settlers for flouting the law and using violence against Israeli soldiers. Their position is bolstered by, among other things, the statements and attitudes of the settlers themselves (for example, the website discovered by Israeli High Court Justice Michael Cheshin, in which the Amona settlers' call for violent protest if the Court fails to stop the evacuation). The Israeli police are also releasing videos and photos which they believe substantiate their arguments.

The "he said, she said" nature of this argument has already worn thin for the Israeli public, which, as noted above, blames both sides for the confrontations, and which has been saturated with graphic footage of the incident. A "Geocartography" poll of 509 adults Israelis (including Israeli Arabs) carried out on February 8th for Israel Radio's "It's All Talk" show, asked people "Do you support or oppose establishing a committee to investigate what transpired at Amona?" 28.1% of those polled responded "support," 54.6% responded "oppose," and 17.3% gave some other answer.

Israel's Ministry of Justice announced February 5th that the Police Investigative Department had opened an investigation into police conduct in Amona. However, for many critics this was insufficient, and there have been demands - again, from across the political spectrum - for an official commission of inquiry. In a (successful) effort to embarrass the acting prime minister (who opposes an official inquiry) and appeal to right-wing voters, right-wing Knesset members, and in particular Likud members, championed a Knesset proposal for such an inquiry. They scored a success when, while the Prime Minister's Kadima party was not paying attention, they managed to narrowly pass the measure through the first of three required Knesset votes. However, this success is likely to prove largely symbolic, since the measure now faces two serious obstacles: (1) parties supporting the measure don't have enough votes to be assured that the measure will pass in any future votes, and (2) there is probably insufficient time before the next Knesset elections - scheduled for March 2006 - to move the measure forward.

What was Peace Now's role during the evacuation/demolition at Amona?

Peace Now's role in the Amona saga was strictly limited to demanding that the Government of Israel and the various agents of its authority carry out the law and carry out the lawful orders issued by the responsible government bodies. Peace Now played no role in the actual evacuations and demolitions at Amona, and no Peace Now representatives were present at the site during the operation.

Produced by Lara Friedman and Noam Shelef, Americans for Peace Now, with assistance from Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel)