SILWAD, West Bank — For Palestinians in the village of Silwad, the eviction of 40 families from a nearby Jewish settlement last month was a clear-cut victory.
The way they see it, justice prevailed two decades after a group of messianic Israelis set up their homes at a place Palestinians once called Al Mazaria, or “farmers hill,” and declared it Amona. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the settlement was built illegally on Palestinian farmland and ordered its demolition.
But for activists at Yesh Din, a small Israeli human rights organization that spearheaded the legal battle on behalf of about 80 Palestinians, victory was never a sure thing and the battle is not over. Those removed from their homes in Amona and their supporters are determined to see a new settlement built at another location in the West Bank, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised on the eve of their eviction.
“In legal terms, the Amona case was simple. Someone had invaded private land and built structures on the property. But ultimately we were dealing with the Israeli government with all its power, not just the trespassers,” said Michael Sfard, Yesh Din’s legal adviser and a key figure in the fight against Amona for nearly a decade.
On Dec. 25, 2016, the eve of what was supposed to be the final deadline for eviction, Amona residents received an additional reprieve for 45 days with support from Netanyahu and hard-line Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The state argued, once again in court, that it needed a bit more time to find an alternative solution.
“I remember that we were sitting in the office and we heard there would be another postponement,” Sfard said. “We were so mad!”
“I was concerned that they would be allowed to stay and it would be a bitter defeat for us,” said Neta Patrick, the chief executive of Yesh Din, which means “there is law.”
Patrick and her colleagues were worried that even if the court upheld its ruling that Amona needed to be demolished, it would agree to a government proposal to move the settlement less than a mile away to the other side of the hilltop. Yesh Din maintains that the proposed alternative location also belongs to Palestinian landowners.
“We were fighting against mighty powers on this issue, and it was only on Feb. 1, when the court handed down its final ruling that time was up and the settlement must be removed, that we realized we had won,” Patrick said.
The unprecedented scene of Israeli police officers and soldiers prying settlers and their supporters out of homes and communal buildings at Amona pitched Israelis against one another. Some in Israel said it was immoral for Jews to force other Jews from their homes, while others believed that the rule of law needed to take precedent. If the settlement was built on land owned by private individuals, they said, then the structures needed to be removed.
Despite their success in evicting Jewish settlers from land belonging to Palestinians — a feat that has eluded some of the most powerful figures in the international community for decades — Yesh Din is under no illusions that the fight is over.
Founded in 2005, the group’s stated goal is to defend the rights of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank. In addition to legal advocacy, such as in the Amona case, field workers and volunteers travel the West Bank gathering personal testimonies to highlight rights violations by individual Israelis or by authorities.
According to data published by B’Tselem, another Israeli human rights organization, about 400,000 Jewish settlers and between 180,000 and 300,000 Palestinians live on land known as Area C, which covers roughly 60 percent of the West Bank.
Most of the world considers all Jewish settlements in the West Bank — not just those such as Amona that are built on private Palestinian property — to be illegal. Under President Barack Obama, the United States called the communities “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace.” Israel disputes this characterization.
Maryam Hammad, 83, a Palestinian villager from Silwad who once harvested wheat and barley with her husband and children there, remembers that she thought the Jewish settlers were just tourists when they arrived 20 years ago.
“We tried to go back to the land a few times, but each time, the army pushed us back,” said Hammad, who has kept small mementos from her life as a farmer — a bucket of barley seeds, an old wooden pitchfork and even a dry bundle of wheat placed in a vase atop her television set.
Hammad said the settlers offered her money a few times in exchange for the land. “I told them, ‘Even if you filled my house from floor to ceiling with $100 bills, I would not give up my land,’ ” she said.
The day last month that Israeli security forces finally evicted the settlers, Hammad handed out candy and cake to friends and neighbors.
Silwad’s mayor, Abdel Rahman Saleh, said that it may have taken many years but that justice won in the end.
“We were dependent on God, our people and, of course, this organization Yesh Din, which helped us,” he said. It also helped, he said, that the village’s farmers had held on to fading land deeds given to them when Jordan ruled the West Bank and had those deeds verified by Israel after it took control of the area in 1967.
“Yesh Din are practical people. They understand the Israeli system and know how to work within it,” the mayor said.
To many settlers, however, Israeli human rights organizations are nothing more than a front for European governments trying to meddle in their business and drive the Jews from the land they believe God promised to them in the Bible.
Yesh Din, the settlers point out, receives the bulk of its funding from foreign governments and foundations.
“They are not a human rights organization; they are a political organization,” said Avichai Boaron, a former resident of Amona who led his community’s struggle against the eviction. He lost his home last month when Israeli military bulldozers rolled in.
“They talk about people’s rights, but we lost our homes, we were transferred, and today we are living like refugees,” he said. “But we are not important to them, because we are Jews.”
The Yesh Din attorneys rebut those claims, and they say their organization is the victim of a larger government effort to disperse false facts against small, left-wing nongovernmental organizations and delegitimize the work they do to help Palestinians who have no rights in the Israeli system.
“We are small but professional, and we don’t take the incitement against us personally,” Sfard said. “Even if the Amona settlers had stayed on the hill, we would have won because we succeeded in empowering the Palestinian landowners.”
As for the next step, the Yesh Din team says it must make sure the landowners get to use their land.
“We are doubtful Israel will do the right thing, but we are not ready to give up,” Sfard said .