Last week, after over two decades of turmoil over the fate of its existence, the West Bank settlement outpost of Amona was somewhat anti-climatically evacuated. It was a predictable media and political frenzy: settlers deploying both violent and passive resistance to their removal from caravans and their makeshift synagogue by the Israeli Defense Forces, politicians on all sides fulminated about the crisis, and Palestinians and the international community pondering the future of the two-state solution. While both the optics and realities of this small-scale disengagement were disheartening (especially if one saw them as dress-rehearsal for a larger evacuation) in many ways, the show was a distraction from more important developments.
While the world’s attention was Amona, the State of Israel has been retroactively adjudicating the status of existing communities (including a major bill passed yesterday in the Knesset that allowed for the legal expropriation of Palestinian-owned parcels), aggressively building new settlements and housing units, and all parties have significantly retreated from a two-state solution predicated on a partition of the land between Israelis and Palestinians under a final status agreement.
Amona was founded in 1995 in the midst of the peace process by a few settlers from the nearby West Bank settlement of Ofra, one of the founding communities of the Israeli settler movement established by the premier native Israeli religious-nationalist settler activist group Gush Emunim [Bloc of the Faith] in the mid-1970s. This nucleus of radicals was concerned that their own community had become too bourgeois and mainstream, seeking new political and lifestyle alternatives in a politically sensitive period. These ‘pioneers’ were seemingly unconcerned that their caravans — and later permanent houses — were built on private Palestinian land held by farmers from the adjoining village of Silwad (subsequently, it has been revealed that portions of the Ofra parcel were privately owned, too.)
The recent evacuation of the outpost was not a surprise — nor is it a strategically-important or significantly-sized settlement — but it was still a big story because of its symbolism for all stakeholders. Demolition orders were handed down in 1997 and 2003. In 2006, the settlers, although not all their structures, were removed by a significant force of 10,000 police and army troops facing demonstrators in the thousands — a prequel to the scene last week. A subsequent parliamentary inquiry found that some personnel had used excessive force against the settlers.
Since then, the settlers, the courts, politicians, and the army have been locked in a struggle over Amona's fate, while many of the same stakeholders were quietly allowing it to expand in both population and permanency — a synecdoche for the Israeli settler movement as a whole over the past few decades.
Since 2008, the status of Amona has been stalled in the courts, which granted several delays and appeals. After various twists and turns in the settlement outpost’s saga (which included allegations of fraud), the High Court issued its last stay of demolition in 2014, although government delay tactics postponed the final evacuation until last Thursday. Subsequently, the 40-odd families on site were removed and all structures were razed.
Amona's evacuation has been eclipsed by legislative initiatives that have radically altered the course of the peace process.
Despite the long-awaited evacuation, the Amona settlers and their allies, who poured into the settlement in solidarity, did not go quietly. A liveblog of the events documented resident evacuees pelting police with rocks, iron bars, and liquids, wounding more than 40 of the security forces. In a last willful gesture, settlers holed up in the synagogue, which they later spray-painted with a swastika and ‘Death to the Zionists’ in a message to the Israeli army. This was symbolic of the disdain of a minority of settlers for Israel and their support for its replacement with some kind of theocracy under Jewish law.
Politicians were not above their own protests either. Ultra-nationalist lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich of the Habayit Hayehudi, or Jewish Home, party likened the disengagement to the “brutal rape” of a woman (while apparently nonplussed by the appropriation of private Palestinian land). Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party labelled the resisters “hooligans” who “show contempt to Judaism.” Jewish Home head and Education Minister Naftali Bennett called for the unilateral annexation of the West Bank and a new settlement for Amona’s evacuees. While no dove himself, Defence Minister Avigidor Lieberman insisted instead all parties peacefully abide by “the rules of the game." Netanyahu himself was mostly mum, saying only that “he shared the pain” of the families, although later announcing plans to build 2,500 housing units across the West Bank.
While the peace camp claimed victory at Amona and settlers decried their betrayal by the state, appearances — as always in the Arab-Israeli conflict — can be deceiving. As news of the passage of the land expropriation bill in the Knesset has gone viral, the events on the ground at Amona have been eclipsed by legislative initiatives that have radically altered the course of the peace process.
In truth, the settlement movement lost the Amona battle but is winning the war, with a powerful bloc of ultra-nationalist members of Knesset able to push through this piece of legislation (which is likely to be challenged in Israeli courts), expansion plans in locales that would effectively make a two-state solution impossible, the legalisation of Palestinian land expropriation (at least in a limited sense), and the mainstreaming of a broader discourse on annexation of Area C or the entirety of the West Bank.
Not only is it becoming geographically more difficult to trade land-for-peace, there is also clear evidence that majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians are no longer in favour of partition. This is a remarkable development in the history of Zionism and prospects for final status agreement. If there is to be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, it seems more likely now, post-Amona, than ever before that a new paradigm will be necessary.
While it is too soon to say what the position of the Trump administration may be on settlements, which will surely be a topic at a closely watched meeting between the Israeli and US leaders in 10 days' time, Washington too may be retreating from a two-state paradigm. The disengagement of Amona is less likely to herald a final status accord than a consignment of the Oslo process to the dustbin of history.
The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.