West Bank outpost of Amona prepares for clashes as Knesset considers bill

Forty families call the West Bank outpost of Amona home, but Israel's top court has ruled they need to be evicted. But residents are promising to fight for the homes, the CBC's Derek Stoffel reports.

'The land is the heart of the Bible land, and we're very attached to all our history'

Eli Greenberg stands at the home he and his family have lived in since 2004, in the West Bank settler outpost of Amona. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

The homes that make up the settler outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank are temporary and run down, far from luxurious. Yet for Eli Greenberg, there's nowhere else on Earth he'd rather live.

"The land is the heart of the Bible land, and we're very attached to all our history," Greenberg said as he surveyed the community where he has lived since 2004. "This is our homeland, our birthright."

But Greenberg's dream of living on land that dates back to biblical times could come to an end if Israeli bulldozers roll into the hilltop community.

Issa Zayed, a resident of the Palestinian village of Taybeh, points to land he says he owns on the hilltop where the Amona outpost is located. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Israel's Supreme Court has ruled that Amona, home to 40 Jewish families north of Ramallah, is an illegal settlement, built on land that belongs to Palestinians. 

The judges ordered the eviction of Amona's residents. Israel's military, which administers the occupied territory, has been told to demolish the homes and a synagogue by Dec. 25.

The order has Amona residents casting their memories back to 2006, and a bloody confrontation between the settlers and security forces. Soldiers and police officers arrived in riot gear to tear down nine homes after a similar court order. Hundreds of protesters and members of the security forces were injured in the clashes.

"It's a very sad story, very painful," said Greenberg of the evictions a decade ago. "It's the same thing they're planning for us on Dec. 25th."

Political effort underway

Greenberg and his neighbours are now hoping for a reprieve in the form of a proposed law that is in front of Israel's parliament, the Knesset.

Known as the Regulation Bill, it would retroactively legalize Jewish settlements built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank. The draft bill would force Palestinian landowners to accept compensation.

An Israeli youth builds wooden structures to temporarily house thousands of supporters expected to come to Amona ahead of the Dec. 25 deadline. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

"I would never accept compensation," said Issa Zayed, one of the Palestinians who owns the land on which Amona was built.

Zayed used to harvest olives on his four hectares of land. He lives in the nearby Palestinian village Taybeh, but said he has not been able to visit his property since 1998.

"This land is very important to me," Zayed told CBC News. "It's as important to me as is my own son. And now someone has taken him away from me." 

Israel's pro-settlement movement has backed the legislation in the Knesset, which could cause a rift in the coalition government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Kids play on a street in the settlement outpost of Amona, which was established in 1997, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Some of the more moderate members of the coalition have indicated they may not support the draft law, as it effectively is an end run around the country's Supreme Court.

It's shaping up to be a political test for Netanyahu, who enjoys the support of the settlement movement, but could have to contend with an international backlash if the bill becomes law.

Fears of international backlash

Most of the world, including Canada, considers all settlements in the West Bank to be a violation of international law, not just those built on private Palestinian land. Israel, however, disputes this.

The United States said it was "deeply concerned" by the Regulation Bill. 

"If this law were enacted it would pave the way for the legalization of dozens of illegal outposts deep in the West Bank," said State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau. "This would represent an unprecedented and troubling step that is inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinion and also break longstanding Israeli policy of not building on private Palestinian land."

"This proposed bill is not only unconstitutional, it's also immoral, and it's a stain on the Israeli parliament," said Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din.  "We really do hope, at some point, somebody will say, stop. This is enough."

With criticism mounting, Israeli officials have looked for other ways to try to resolve the Amona crisis. 

They floated a proposal to move the 40 Amona families to a nearby settlement, but the plan was rejected by the residents.

Now, the settlers who live in the outpost are preparing for a looming showdown. They're constructing temporary structures to accommodate the thousands of supporters who are expected to arrive in the area ahead of the Dec. 25 deadline.

"When you inflict pain upon people … some people smile, some people don't," said Eli Greenberg, the Amona resident. "I cannot guarantee anything that will happen when you inflict pain on a community. Please do not push us."


Derek Stoffel

World News Editor

Derek Stoffel is a former Middle East correspondent, who covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war. Based in Jerusalem for many years, he covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.