Amona Residents Maintain Rights to Land
It is a beautiful clear day on a hilltop in central Samaria. Jerusalem can be seen in the distance, while the Judean desert stretches afar with the large community of Ofra nestled below. Although it’s sweltering outside, under the shade of a tree in the garden of Nahum Schwartz, life in the community known as Amona has an idyllic quality.
Schwartz’s children run around with the family’s dog, Hummus, as the 39-year-old farmer and father of six, takes a moment to look over his home and property.
But Schwartz’s face is creased with worry. Like any community, Amona has its challenges, but under the radar of the Israeli NGO Yesh Din’s judicial petitions, its very existence is in question. Next week, if Israel’s High Court of Justice ruling pans out, Amona residents will be evicted from their homes and forced to relocate on Monday, July 15.
There are 200 people, or 40 families living in Amona, which was established in 1995. The residents work in varying professions including farming, education and academia.
For Schwartz, 39, the looming eviction would be disastrous. “My life is here – my home, my work and my livelihood,” Schwartz recently told Tazpit News Agency. “My sheep graze this land and I grow and market berries here. Amona is not only our home, but also our lifestyle.”
Schwartz’s wife, Yifat, was one of the first residents of the community, which was established by singles and university-aged students mostly from Ofra. Beforehand, Ofra’s residents would often use the barren hilltop on which Amona is located for community events, picnics, and hiking.
“I live here because of my ideals,” says Schwartz who met his wife Yifat in Amona in 1997, when he himself joined the community building project. “There was no one here when we first came. Growing up in Ofra, I would often play on this hilltop.”
However, life as a farmer and shepherd has not always been easy. Five years ago, a large number of Schwartz’s flock was stolen by Palestinians, a severe financial blow. He had to rebuild his flock and now has 130 ewes which he watches and protects diligently. “If we are forced to move, I will have to find a place with grazing area for my sheep,” explains Schwartz. “A move like that could potentially affect my income as well.”
Schwartz also grows a field of raspberries and blackberries and explains that together with his flock, he is able to make ends meet.
But the farmer is very well aware of the legal situation surrounding his community.
He cites Alan Baker, an Israeli expert in international law and a former Israeli ambassador who wrote a recent publication entitled “The Legal Basis of Israel’s Rights in the Disputed Territories,” for the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs. In the article, Baker notes that: “The legality of the presence of Israel’s communities in the area stems from the historic, indigenous and legal rights of the Jewish people to settle in the area, granted pursuant to valid and binding international legal instruments recognized and accepted by the international community. These rights cannot be denied or placed in question.”
But if Yesh Din has its way, neither Baker’s legal explanation nor Schwartz’s ideals or perspective, will have any place in the organization’s self-described mission to defend human rights of Palestinian civilians.
The conflict surrounding Amona today began when Yesh Din together with Peace Now petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to demolish Amona’s buildings in January 2006. The petition led the High Court to order the destruction and evacuation of nine Amona homes a month later in February 2006, which led to a violent confrontation. Since then, the state has asked to extend the final evacuation of Amona in response to High Court rulings to further Yesh Din petitions while Amona residents have been arguing that they have bought the plots of lands on which their homes reside.
It is important to note that Yesh Din receives major funding from a number of European institutions with the European Union and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as their top donors in 2012. Others include the German Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa) and Irish Aid, among others. Even the Open Society Foundations (OSF), founded by George Soros, donated about $80,000 last year, part of the approximate $1.2 million that Yesh Din received from foreign institutions in 2012.
But no matter what happens, Nahum Schwartz will continue to see Amona as home. “They can make all the decisions they want against me,” he says. “But I am an Israeli citizen and I have rights to this land too.”