Israel to build first new West Bank settlement since 1990s


 Reuters International

Israeli policemen try to remove pro-settlement activists from a house during an operation by Israeli forces to evict settlers from the illegal outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

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By Eli Berlzon

AMONA, West Bank (Reuters) - Israel said on Wednesday it would establish a new settlement in the occupied West Bank, the first since the late 1990s, to rehouse settlers evicted on the same day from an outpost built on private Palestinian land.

A statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said he was making good on a commitment to the settlers of Amona and had ordered the formation of a committee to locate a site where they could rebuild their homes.

"As promised a month and a half ago to the settlers, (Netanyahu) has set up a committee that will promote the establishment of a new settlement... It will begin work immediately to locate a spot and to establish the settlement," a statement from the Prime Minister's Office said.

The announcement was made shortly after Israel's Supreme Court rejected a government plan to rehouse some of the Amona settlers on an adjacent plot because it ruled that homes built there would also encroach on land owned by Palestinians.

According to the Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, Israel last established new settlements in the West Bank in 1999, although outposts such as Amona, that settlers set up without official permission, have been built far more recently.

Around 330 Israeli settlers live in Amona, the largest of scores of outposts built in the West Bank. The Supreme Court ruled in November, after a lengthy legal battle, that settlers had to leave because their homes were built on privately owned Palestinian land.

On Wednesday, rightist protesters scuffled with Israeli police carrying out a court order to evict the Amona settlers, hours after the government announced more construction in larger settlements.

With no weapons visible but wearing backpacks, hundreds of police walked past burning tyres and pushed back against scores of nationalist Israeli youths who flocked to Amona in support of the settlers.

Working into the night the forces made slow progress, with three or four policemen at a time lifting each of the protesters out of dwellings in which they had holed up, and carrying them away onto buses.

By dark police said many of Amona's 40 families had left but some protesters remained holed up in the settlement's synagogue and negotiations were ongoing to secure an orderly eviction.

Thirteen protesters were detained by police during the scuffles and there were a few instances of stone-throwing. A police spokesmen said at least 20 officers were injured slightly by rocks and caustic liquid thrown at them.

"A Jew doesn't evict a Jew!" the youngsters chanted.

The Amona settlers themselves stayed largely put inside their homes after erecting makeshift barriers in front of their doors and vowing passive resistance to eviction.

"We won't leave our homes on our own. Pull us out, and we'll go," one settler told reporters. "It is a black day for Zionism."

On a nearby hilltop, Issa Zayed, a Palestinian who said he was one of the owners of the land on which Amona was built, watched the scene through binoculars. "With God's help, it will be evacuated and our land will return to us," he said.

Most countries consider all Israeli settlements to be illegal. Israel disagrees, citing historical and political links to the land - which the Palestinians also assert - as well as security interests.

NEW SETTLER HOMES

Earlier, Israel announced plans for 3,000 more settlement homes in the West Bank, the third such declaration in 11 days since U.S. President Donald Trump took office. Trump, a Republican, has signalled he could be more accommodating towards such projects than his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

An announcement a week ago by Israel that it would build some 2,500 more dwellings in the West Bank, territory captured in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war and where Palestinians now seek statehood, drew rebukes from the Palestinians and the European Union. It followed approval a few days before of over 560 new homes in East Jerusalem, also taken by Israel in 1967.

"The decision ... will place obstacles in the path of any effort to start a peace process that will lead to security and peace," said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinians want the West Bank and Gaza Strip for an independent state, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

In 2006 Amona saw a violent partial eviction, with nine shacks torn down by authorities. Police were confronted by thousands of settlers and more than 200 people were injured.

The Amona issue had caused tension within Netanyahu's coalition government. But it eased after he got behind a law proposed by the Jewish Home party, a far-right political ally, to retroactively legalise dozens of outposts. This would not apply to Amona because of the existing court decision.

"We have lost the battle over Amona but we are winning the campaign for the Land of Israel," Cabinet minister and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett tweeted after the evacuation began.

Parliament is expected to pass the legislation next week. It is opposed, however, by Israel's attorney-general, and legal experts predict that it will eventually be overturned in court.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Ori Lewis, writing by Jeffrey Heller,; Editing by Gareth Jones and Tom Brown)

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