"My feeling for the land is something that only farmers could understand. I'm dreaming of the day I can return. I wouldn't trade this land for its weight in gold." Haaretz
80-year-old Maryam Hamad hasn't set foot on her land since Israeli settlers set up their trailers and built on the West Bank hilltop almost 20 years ago. After two years of legal wrangling by the Israeli Government to circumvent a Supreme Court ruling that it must be demolished, the Amona outpost was finally evacuated this week. Built on private Palestinian land, Amona was illegal not only under international law - as are all Israeli settlements in the West Bank - but also under Israel's own law.
Maryam is one of a number of Palestinians who, supported by Oxfam's Israeli partner Yesh Din, successfully petitioned the High Court to evacuate Amona. But even the victory of this evacuation is limited, as the government has since reached agreement with the settlers to move them to adjacent land - which is also Palestinian private land. If this happens, the Palestinian land owners like Maryam will most likely be unable to go near their land because it will be declared a security zone due its proximity to the new settlements. Israel's history on Amona has been an astonishing example of the government's willingness to appease a small group of settlers at the expense of human rights and justice, even as decreed by its own High Court.
Amona is one of 97 similar unauthorised outposts strategically scattered across the Occupied Palestinian Territory. These outposts, along with the constant expansion of settlements considered lawful by the Government of Israel but illegal under international law, have thrived to now accommodate more than half a million Israelis, including settlements in East Jerusalem. If this expansion continues at the current rate, any prospect for a Palestinian state will become increasingly difficult, even impossible, to realize.
Alarmingly, and seemingly emboldened by the change in US administration, a senior member of the Israeli cabinet has recently announced he will put forward a plan to formally annex almost all illegal settlements on Palestinian land surrounding Jerusalem. After the largest settlement plan since 2013 was approved by the Israeli government last week, 3000 more settlement homes were approved on the eve of the Amona evacuation. These would accelerate the illegal but practically effective absorption of Palestinian territory into Israel, unilaterally shifting the borders and furthering the process of steady de facto annexation of Palestinian territory.
This continued expansion across the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the confiscation of Palestinian land and resources is not only an obstacle to peace, it keeps vulnerable Palestinians poor. Illegal settlements have fuelled poverty across the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, with both the World Bank and United Nations concluding restrictions on Palestinian access to Area C - the 61 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli government control and where most settlements are located - cost the Palestinian economy about £2.7 billion/$3.4 billion a year.
Despite its reluctance to evacuate illegal Israeli settlers, the government has proved itself both willing and exceedingly effective in demolishing Palestinian homes. Last year, a record number of demolitions took place, over 1000 structures, with thousands of Palestinians forced from their homes as bulldozers arrived to destroy them. In the first week of 2017, the number of Palestinian buildings demolished was four times the weekly average compared to last year. In just four days, 74 structures were destroyed and 151 Palestinians were left without homes. It's an alarming forewarning of what may come in this 50th year of occupation.
The Israeli authorities, which systematically carry out these demolitions, justify them by claiming the Palestinian structures are 'illegal' and built without permits. However, Israel's permit and planning regime - which is discriminatory and illegal under international law - makes it almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain such permits. Despite the Government of Israel's actions being widely condemned, including by the donor governments whose humanitarian aid it also destroys, it enjoys similar levels of impunity in the international community as do the settlers of Amona within Israel. While the EU, UK and US are increasingly willing to issue well-rehearsed denunciations about settlements and demolitions, they are far less forthcoming in pressing Israel for any real accountability, including by demanding compensation for demolished humanitarian structures they have funded.
Instead, the Government of Israel has allocated 40 million shekels - approximately £8.8 million - in compensation to be shared between the settlers of Amona as well as others in the adjacent Ofra settlement, which has also been ordered by the Supreme Court to evacuate. And despite the unprecedented scale of demolitions of EU-funded structures, the EU has signalled it is willing to consider upgrading bilateral relations with Israel.
On its current trajectory, Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territory could persist indefinitely with continued impunity, perpetuating the range of human rights abuses and violations of international law that have been committed under its auspices for decades.
Enough is enough. The international community must hold Israel to account for its ongoing and systematic violations of international law. In order to preserve any chance for a just and lasting peace for Palestinians and Israelis, Israel's ongoing de facto annexation of Palestinian territory must be halted and reversed before it is too late.
Alison Martin, Oxfam International Policy lead for Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel.