Deal Reached to Relocate Amona Settlers, Bennett Says

Resident of illegal Israeli outpost would be moved on same hilltop, Bennett says, after negotiations with Netanyahu. Attorney general says relocation to nearby plots is legit, even if Palestinian claims to land emerge.

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett.
Education Minister and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday that he had come to an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that would resolve the controversy over the evacuation of the West Bank Amona outpost.

The plan, he said, would relocate the residents as a group to a nearby site on the same hill on land deemed abandoned by Palestinian owners. The Habayit Hayehudi party leader expressed confidence that Amona's residents would accept it.

Bennett declined to provide details before the plan is presented to the residents of Amona, who are facing a December 25 deadline set by the High Court of Justice, which ruled that the Amona outpost had to be vacated because it was built on land owned by individual Palestinian owners. The owners went to court asserting their claim to the land at the outpost, which was built in the 1990s without government approval. It is now home to about 40 families.

The final proposal, which is supported by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, would give Amona's residents temporary permits, renewable every two years, to live at the new site.

The Amona outpost in early December 2016.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Mendelblit agreed that the army could issue a special order that would make it possible to divide the plots of land at the proposed new site for Amona among various owners in the event that Palestinians assert that they have inherited ownership of portions of the proposed site, which is currently deemed abandoned land. That would enable the Amona residents to establish their new community on other portions of the site.

According to current law, when someone asserts a claim to have inherited a portion of a plot, no construction on the site is allowed until the court adjudicates the claim. With the new procedure, Mendelblit is allowing the claimant to receive land at the edge of the plot so that construction by Amona residents can proceed. Such a procedure, however, would affect Palestinian claimants' property rights because the land that they would receive at the edge of the plot would presumably be less valuable than elsewhere on the site.

"After numerous efforts vis-à-vis the prime minister and Attorney General [Avichai Mendelblit], we have managed to develop a good plan [involving relocation to] abandoned land and have met the goal of leaving Amona on the hill," Bennett said. "It's a large area that leaves all of the families on the hill. I don't want to present the details before we present them to the people of Amona. I believe that we will obtain their consent to peacefully relocate to the new area on the Amona hill and can therefore ask the High Court of Justice for an extension of time."

Sources at the committee spearheading the effort to halt the eviction of Amona residents said they have received no details regarding the plan and have not agreed to any resolution of the problem, but would comment after it is presented to them.

Bennett called the need to relocate Amona "an injustice" but said that under the circumstances, the plan would enable the residents of the outpost to remain together "on the hill." He also cautioned against any use of violence under any circumstances.

Pending legislation in the Knesset would legalize some West Bank settlement construction on land owned by individual Palestinians, but it would not apply to Amona. The legislation would allow the state to give the settlers usage rights to privately owned Palestinian land, but not ownership rights. It would only apply to settlements that the government helped establish. Palestinians who can prove ownership of land would receive compensation.

In a related development Monday, the deputy attorney general for international law warned a joint Knesset session that final passage of the pending bill would, with a "high degree" of probability, result in the launching of an investigation against Israel in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Deputy Attorney General Roy Schondorf issued the warning at a closed joint session of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The joint panel is considering the bill in advance of its submission to a vote by the full Knesset on second reading. A third vote by the full Knesset would be necessary before the legislation became law.

Schondorf also presented the committee with an analysis of the legal status of the settlements in general, noting that over the nearly 50 years since the establishment of the first settlements after the Six-Day War, there has been no international intervention in the situation in the territories. This, he said, was because of Israel's legal approach to the issue, which was that the territories constitute an area held as result of war and that the Palestinians living there are accorded protection based on that. The passage of the proposed legislation, he warned, would constitute a breach of that legal position.

The immediate implication of the passage of the law would be what he termed "a high degree of probability that [Fatou Bensouda], the criminal prosecutor at The Hague, would recommend that an investigation be launched and indictments be filed with respect to the settlements."

It is also possible, Schondorf noted, that the Israeli Supreme Court would overturn the law as a violation of Israel's constitutional legal framework. If the law withstands Supreme Court scrutiny, however, it would present a problem for Israel in The Hague, he said, adding that Bensouda is already conducting an initial inquiry into the settlement issue.

This was the first joint committee session on the bill that was held behind closed doors. In addition to Schondorf, the session was also attended by Ahaz Ben Ari, the legal adviser to the defense establishment, who backed Schondorf's position, saying that the entire defense establishment, including the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, oppose the legislation. Schondorf and Ben Ari refused, however, to answer questions regarding the security implications of the proposed law, saying that it was not within their area of expertise.

In the interim, marathon sessions on the legislation have been deferred until next week. A number of Knesset members with particular knowledge of the matter have told Haaretz that since the approval of the bill on first reading, it appears that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wishes to slow the pace of the legislative process so that the law is not submitted for a final vote on third reading before President Barack Obama leaves office on January 20.

With reporting by Yotam Berger

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