Israeli forces begin evacuating settlers from West Bank

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A settler looks out the window in the West Bank outpost Amona, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israeli forces began an operation to evacuate settlers from a West Bank outpost on Wednesday whose long-delayed destruction threatens to rupture Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow coalition, dominated by ultranationalists who support settlements.

Unarmed police in blue sweatshirts and black baseball caps made their way up the hill around midday. On the hilltop, youngsters erected makeshift barricades from smashed tiles, rusty metal bars and large rocks to slow their advance. Some protesters threw rocks at security forces, while others set fire to tires and trash piles.

Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts erected in the West Bank without permission but generally tolerated by the Israeli government. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Amona was built on private Palestinian land and must be demolished. It set Feb. 8 as the final date for it to be destroyed.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 3,000 police officers were operating “carefully and slowly” to evacuate the area. Minor scuffles broke out between some activists and police. Rosenfeld said 13 officers were lightly hurt from stones and an unidentified liquid hurled by protesters, several of whom were arrested.

The outpost, built in the 1990s, stretches out over a rugged, grassy hilltop and looks out across the valley onto Palestinian villages. In 2006, also on Feb. 1, Israeli police demolished nine homes at Amona, setting off violent clashes pitting settlers and their supporters against police and soldiers and turning the outpost into a symbol of settler defiance.

About 50 families, some 250 people, live in Amona now. In recent weeks dozens of mostly young supporters, including high school students, have arrived to face off against Israeli forces. Rosenfeld said about 1,500 activists were on the hilltop Wednesday.

“This is a dark day for us, for Zionism, for the state and for the great vision of the Jewish people returning to its homeland,” Avichay Buaron, a spokesman for Amona, told Channel 2 TV.

Yesh Din, the Israeli legal rights group that represented the Palestinian landowners in court, welcomed the evacuation. In a Facebook post, it said the landowners are “waiting to return.”

“Our feeling is indescribable, said Abdel-Rahman Saleh, the mayor of the nearby Palestinian town of Silwad, who assisted the landowners in building their case. “We struggled for 20 years to get our land back.”

Activists gathered in homes, praying, singing religious songs and dancing while some chained themselves to heavy objects and locked their doors. Residents have said they plan to resist their evacuation peacefully and police said nine families had so far left the area voluntarily.

Bilha Schwarts, 24, came along with her husband and nine-month-old daughter to support the residents. “If they want it they can take it, we will not fight. We will leave but we will come back,” she told The Associated Press.

Shortly after noon, bulldozers began making their way up the hill, one of them clearing a path.

Protesters chanted “Jews don’t expel Jews” as they linked arms to form a wall against police. Others heckled officers and pleaded with them to refuse their orders.

The fate of Amona has threatened to destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes the pro-settler party Jewish Home and other hard-liners. However, it’s unlikely that Amona’s demise would be sufficient to topple the government as the nationalist parties have too much to lose by leaving Netanyahu’s government at this stage.

Speaking at Israel’s parliament as the evacuation was in process, Education Minister Naftali Bennett — leader of the Jewish Home Party — called the Amona settlers “heroes” and vowed to “build a new settlement.”

Bennett said he is confident a bill that would legalize scores of other Israeli settlement outposts will pass next week.

Netanyahu has struggled to find a balance between appeasing his settler constituents and respecting Israel’s Supreme Court, which has drawn the ire of hard-liners by ruling against the settlers. There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu.

Bezalel Smotrich, a lawmaker from the Jewish Home party, was one of several politicians who went to Amona to show support. “There is a great pain, a huge disappointment. They are uprooting a community in Israel. It is a terrible thing,” he told Channel 2 TV.

While readying to evacuate Amona, Israel announced plans to build 3,000 homes in the West Bank late Tuesday. The Palestinians claim the territory, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, as parts of a future independent state — a position that has wide international backing. Much of the territory, which was seized in the 1967 war, has deep religious and historical significance for both Jews and Muslims.

The election of Donald Trump, who has promised to be far more supportive of Israel than his predecessor, has emboldened Israel’s settlement movement. His campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, a cornerstone of two decades of international diplomacy in the region, and he has signaled that he will be far more tolerant of Israeli settlement construction.

Story by The Associated Press