Israeli forces begin evacuation of West Bank outpost

Israeli forces begin evacuation of West Bank outpost

Israeli forces began an operation to evacuate settlers from a West Bank outpost on Wednesday whose slated destruction could 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 Wednesday. 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.

Minor scuffles broke out between some activists and police as protesters tried to block officers from progressing.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said forces were operating “carefully and slowly.” He said 10 officers were lightly hurt and several protesters were arrested.

Protesters chanted “Jews don’t expel Jews” as they linked arms to form a wall against police.

Activists gathered in homes, praying, singing religious songs and dancing. Residents have said they plan to resist their evacuation peacefully. Some chained themselves to heavy objects and locked their doors. A few residents left their homes with young children in the arms.

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.

Several activists crawled under a house and chained themselves to its foundations. One of them, Mordechai, told Channel 2 TV they won’t act violently toward police but “we will hold on to the ground and not give up because this is our land that God promised to the people of Israel.”

Others heckled officers and pleaded with them to refuse their orders.

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 has set Feb. 8 as the final date for it to be destroyed.

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. Several dozen trailers have remained and the outpost has become a symbol for the settlement movement.

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.

“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.

The fate of Amona has threatened to destabilize Netanyahu’s narrow coalition that includes the pro-settler party Jewish Home and other hardliners. 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 pro-settlement 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.

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, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state — a position that has wide international backing. Much of the territory has deep religious and historical significance for many devout Jews, who see it as their biblical heartland and heritage.

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 signalled that he will be far more tolerant of Israeli settlement construction.

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Deitch reported from Jerusalem.

Nebi Qena And Ian Deitch, The Associated Press