U.S. to Israel: Relocating Amona Outpost Deviates From Netanyahu Commitment to Obama

Americans view plan to move outpost to West Bank land abandoned by Palestinians as deviating from Netanyahu's commitment to Obama that Israel would not appropriate Palestinian lands for settlements.

Amona, an unauthorized outpost in the West Bank, east of the Palestinian town of Ramallah, May 18, 2016.
Oded Balilty, AP

Washington opposes Israel’s plan for the West Bank outpost of Amona that would have the settlement’s homes moved to land that apparently belongs to Palestinians who abandoned the site in 1967.

A senior U.S. official noted that Washington had recently approached the Israeli government to strongly protest the matter.

The official noted that the administration had held a series of discussions with Israelis at working and senior levels on Amona.

The Americans view the plan as deviating from commitments undertaken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to President Barack Obama that Israel would not appropriate Palestinian land in the West Bank to establish new settlements or expand existing ones.

Political sources told Haaretz that no decision had been made on Amona, adding that the plan referred to did not involve the expropriation of land.

Benjamin Netanyahu during his speech at Bar-Ilan University, June 2009.
Avi Ohayoun

Netanyahu made the commitment in 2009 in contacts with the U.S. administration as well as in public statements.

The most prominent statement came in Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University where for the first time he consented to a demilitarized Palestinian state that would recognize Israel as the Jewish state.

“The territorial issue will be dealt with in a final agreement,” Netanyahu said at the time. “Until then, we have no intention to build new settlements or to expropriate land to expand existing settlements.”

To ensure that the administration’s position was clear, State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau commented on Amona Thursday night as part of a daily briefing to reporters.

“We’re deeply concerned by reports that the Israeli government has begun the process to take over privately-owned Palestinian land to relocate the illegal Israeli outpost of Amona,” she said.

Trudeau hinted that the administration considered the plan to resolve the issue is contrary to Israel’s commitment to the United States.

“This would represent an unprecedented and troubling step that’s inconsistent with prior Israeli legal opinions and counter to long-standing Israeli policy to not seize private Palestinian land for Israeli settlements,” she said. “If this moves ahead, it would effectively create a new settlement or significantly expand the footprint of an existing settlement deep in the West Bank.”

Meanwhile, a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court that Amona must be vacated by December 25 is causing a storm among settlement leaders and in the cabinet.

The Yesha Council of settlements and other right-wing leaders are conducting a campaign against the evacuation of the outpost. These efforts include large newspaper advertisements threatening that the evacuation would break up the coalition government. Many Knesset members from the Habayit Hayehudi and Likud parties as well as cabinet members are applying pressure to legalize the outpost.

About two months ago, against the backdrop of heavy political pressure, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit asked a committee of jurists headed by a top state prosecutor to consider solutions to resolve the Amona issue.

The panel recommended that the structures at the outpost, which was built on privately owned land and is home to about 40 families, be transferred to adjacent land apparently designated as abandoned property.

At the same time, lease payments would be made to a fund that in the future would be transferred to any Palestinian who proved ownership of land. The structures would be capable of being disassembled, and permission to occupy the site would have to be renewed every three years.

Ad in Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds showing map of land suspected of being absentee property near the unauthorized outpost of Amona.
Courtesy

Last Sunday, Mendelblit said there was nothing preventing consideration of the relocation of the outpost’s homes to adjacent land, and the initial indications were that it was considered abandoned property. “The departure point is careful attention to maintaining the rule of law in general and in Judea and Samaria in particular,” he said, referring to the West Bank.

Mendelblit’s statement took on special significance a few days later. On Thursday Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank published an advertisement in a Palestinian newspaper including a map of an area next to Amona. The Civil Administration said the area might include abandoned property.

The map showed about 30 plots to which Amona might possibly be relocated on a total area of more than 200 dunams (50 acres). All of the plots are around the outpost, some just a few meters from its current location. The advertisement called on Palestinians who claim ownership of the land to contact the Civil Administration and to present proof in objection to the plan.

Amona was established in 1997 on privately-owned land near the settlement of Ofra. In 2006, a violent confrontation took place at the outpost in the course of the evacuation of nine permanent buildings. For the past eight years, the outpost has been the focus of legal controversy after several Palestinian landowners filed petitions with the High Court of Justice via the Israeli rights group Yesh Din.  At first, the state committed to demolish the outpost by the end of 2012, but after repeated delays, it announced that it would only demolish the portions relating to the petition.

The settlers contended that they had acquired several of the plots legally but professional opinions held that some of the purchase documents submitted to the court were forged. At the end of 2014, Justice Asher Grunis, the court president at the time, ordered the evacuation of the entire outpost within two years – by December 25 this year.