Manya Hillel and her husband have lived in a house below an outcrop of pine trees for almost 15 years. They’ve raised their six children here, the oldest is 15, the youngest is just 2 years old.
But their concern now is that very soon they’ll need to find a new home. Israel’s High Court has ordered Amona — a settler outpost in the West Bank — demolished by December 25.
“These are people, these are children, living here,” says Hillel. “And you know how devastated children are when they are torn from their home, having their lives destroyed.”
A few hundred people call this hilltop home. Families raise their children and work the land. Hillel points to the Biblical book of Joshua as her land deed.
“I feel betrayed. I feel very let down by the politicians who promised to stand with us. The government brought us here, they helped us build this place,” she says. “It is time to declare that these lands belong to us, it’s time to say: ‘Enough. No Jewish settlement should be evacuated.'”
The state first moved against the settlers of Amona 10 years ago. There were ugly clashes as mounted police fought with protesters, injuring more than 200 people. “In all my time as a police officer, I have never seen violence like this against us,” an Israeli police officer told CNN.
All that remains from that day in February 2006 are concrete foundations and twisted rebar. The settlers moved up the hill, 100 meters away.
Palestinian Ibrahim Yacoub knows how the settlers feel. From a few hundred yards away, at the foot of the hill, he points to the outcrop of pine trees. “That’s my land,” he tells me, “immediately behind those trees.”
Yacoub tells me his family worked this land for generations. His father and grandfather taught him about the best crops to grow. Some nights they would camp under the stars. Then in 1996 the settlers came, he says, and seized his land, establishing Amona.
“I want you to imagine how you feel when someone comes to your house and he takes from you your car and your house and you can’t do anything,” he says.
The Israeli High Court ruled with Yacoub and declared Amona must go.
“If (the Israeli government will) give it back, I will bring my family and teach my four children how to farm,” says Yacoub. “We’ll stay out here for weeks, months, maybe six months. I might build a house to protect it.”
Lying about 20 kilometers north of Jerusalem, on a hill overlooking the settlement of Ofra, Amona is one of around 100 settler outposts in the West Bank. Outposts are small communities, often consisting of just a few dozen trailer homes, which have sprung up since the 1990s. Unlike settlements, outposts do not have official recognition from the Israeli government, though many have received financial support through investment in infrastructure.
Settlements — of which there are also more than 100 in the West Bank — do have official Israeli government recognition. Under international law, the settlements are illegal, because the West Bank is considered occupied territory. Israel disputes this and insists the status of the West Bank is more ambiguous than international law allows.
With the deadline for Amona’s evacuation getting ever closer, Israel’s right-wing Jewish Home Party — the political keepers of the settler movement — saw an opportunity. The party set in motion legislation originally aimed at saving Amona, and at the same time legalizing more than 50 other West Bank outposts, carving out roughly 2,000 acres of land.
The proposed legislation has put great strains on the governing coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and its fate is unclear. Currently, it looks like Amona will be sacrificed, so as not to undermine the High Court, with Jewish Home focusing its efforts on the status of other 50 outposts. If successful, the party believes it would be a first step toward annexation of the West Bank.
Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett told foreign media a few weeks ago that the election of Donald Trump, and other international developments, have played a role.
“The combination of the changes in the United States, in Europe and the region, provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything,” Bennett said. “After many years, the Israeli government has to decide what do we want.”
Palestinians, and the outgoing Obama administration in Washington, are deeply concerned, seeing even the idea of a viable Palestinian state now on the point of collapse.
“There is no status quo. It’s getting worse. It is moving in the wrong direction,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said of Israel’s settlement policy at a Washington conference just over a week ago. “There is a basic choice that has to be made by Israelis: is there going to be a continued implementation of settlement policy or is there going to be separation and the creation of two states?”
Back in Amona, Manya Hillel and her community are digging in. They’re building shelters for the hundreds — maybe thousands — of supporters they hope will come to defend them.
“We are very clear what we are saying,” says Hillel. “We are staying here, this is our land, this is where we belong. These are our homes.”