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Palestinians denounce Amona 'distraction' as Israel approves settlement expansion

Relocation of settlers dubbed 'propaganda' as thousands of new settlement homes announced since Trump took office
Israeli security forces gather near illegal outpost of Amona in occupied West Bank (AFP)

Israel unveiled plans for 3,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank late on Tuesday, the fourth such announcement in the less than two weeks since US President Donald Trump took office.

The announcement came hours before Israeli security forces began evicting the occupants of a settlement post in line with a high court ruling two years ago that determined the homes were built on private Palestinian land.

International law does not recognise that distinction as all settlements are built on Palestinian territory.

The settlers will be relocated to a nearby site as part of a deal under which they had agreed to be evacuated peacefully, police said.

Opponents of Israel's settlement programme have described the situation at Amona as a distraction from the government's commitment to supporting settlers elsewhere in the West Bank.

Mustafa Bargouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told MEE: "What Netanyahu has done is a big trick and dangerous propaganda, there is no real eviction at all. A few settlers are being moved from a few houses on Palestinian private land to other confiscated Palestinian lands.

"There is a use of the Amona issue to hide the Israeli decision to build another 3,000 new housing units, [part of a plan] to divide the West Bank in two, surround Jerusalem, and prevent any opportunity for a Palestinian state and the option of two state solution."

Khalida Jarrar, another PLC member, added: "This is an attempt to draw attention away from the thousands other housing units being declared by the Israeli government. They are trying to dramatise the eviction to mask more important issues."

"There is no difference whatever between Amona and other settlements in the occupied territories. Branding Amona 'an illegal outpost' is how the government and the media whitewash the rest of the settlements as if they, unlike the outposts, were legal. They are not. Not a single one of them," Gideon Levy wrote for Middle East Eye last month.

READ: How Israeli settlements won their best ever deal from Netanyahu

In a statement on Tuesday, Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, called for the International Criminal Court to "open an immediate investigation into the Israeli settlement enterprise," describing the continuing expansion as an "immoral situation".

The planned eviction from Amona has been deeply unpopular with hardliners within the government, widely regarded as Israel's most right-wing ever, and the new building plans were widely seen as a sop to their supporters.

'There is no real eviction at all. They are merely moving a few settlers from one area of Palestinian private lands to another'
Mustafa Barghouthi, Palestinian MP

Dozens of security personnel entered the Amona outpost, northeast of Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, early on Wednesday to begin moving out its occupants and protesters who had joined them to oppose the move.

Hundreds of hardline sympathisers, who had slipped past army roadblocks on foot, lit tyres around the outpost, an AFP correspondent reported.

Some threw stones at the media as occupants started packing their belongings.

Police said they had been in dialogue with the occupants throughout the night in order to ensure "a peaceful eviction, in accordance with their committment to the High Court".

"Police will strive to carry out the eviction without the use of force," a statement read.

The Israeli government had not approved the establishment of Amona, for which there was never proper planning, but authorities built a paved road and provided electricity, water and other infrastructure to the settlement, as it often does with outposts it deems illegal.

The former US administration of Barack Obama despaired of Israel's accelerating settlement expansion and, in a sharp break with longstanding policy, withheld its veto on a critical UN Security Council resolution in its final days.

But since Trump took office, with top aides sympathetic to the settlement enterprise, the government has announced a string of new projects that will add more than 6,000 homes for Jewish settlers.

"Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have decided to authorise the construction of 3,000 new housing units," the Israeli defence ministry said in a statement.

According to the statement, 2,000 of the units are ready to be put on the market, while the rest are in various stages of planning.

"We're in a new era where life in Judaea and Samaria (the West Bank) is returning to its natural course," said Lieberman, who himself has long lived in a West Bank settlement, adding that his heart was with the Amona settlers.

Since the 20 January inauguration of Trump, Israel has approved the construction of 566 housing units in three settlement neighbourhoods of occupied East Jerusalem and 5,502 more elsewhere in the West Bank.

On Thursday last week, Israeli officials gave final approval for 153 settler homes in East Jerusalem.

They had been frozen under pressure from the Obama administration, which had warned that settlements could derail hopes of a negotiated two-state solution.

A far-right member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, Moti Yogev, whose Jewish Home party is part of Israel's governing coalition, was quite open about the trade-off between the Amona eviction and the new settler homes.

Speaking to AFP at the outpost where he had joined occupants in a show of solidarity, Yogev said that while evacuating Amona was "a bad decision," which he opposed, "we will go".

"Yes, Amona will be destroyed, but against Amona, we are going to build 3,000 new homes."

Trump has pledged strong support for Israel, and Netanyahu's government has moved quickly to take advantage.

"We are building and we will continue building," Netanyahu said last week.

The prime minister has said he sees the Trump presidency as offering "significant opportunities" after facing "huge pressures" from Obama.

'Yes, Amona will be destroyed, but against Amona, we are going to build 3,000 new homes' - MK Moti Yogev

The accelerated settlement expansion has deeply concerned those seeking to salvage a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The international community considers all Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land as illegal and regards their construction as the biggest obstacle to a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

But in a significant break with the Obama administration, Trump's White House has not condemned any of the four settlement expansions announced by Israel since he took office.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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