SILWAD, West Bank – Maryam Abdel-Kareem gazed longingly onto the plot of West Bank land she inherited from her father. Once planted with tomatoes, cucumbers and okra, the wind-swept hilltop now hosts the white trailer homes of an Israeli settlement outpost that took root more than 20 years ago.
Now, Abdel-Kareem and other Palestinian landowners are set to reclaim the property they watched stripped from them, hoping to finally put to rest a bitter, years-long legal saga on Feb. 8 — the latest court-ordered deadline for the evacuation of the Amona outpost.
"I've never lost hope," said Abdel-Kareem, 82, peering out across a rocky valley toward Amona. "It's as if you have this child and you hug him and love him, and you don't want to let him go. The land is like this to me, more precious than a child."
Amona is one of about 100 outposts across the West Bank that Israel considers illegal but tolerates and often allows to flourish. It was established in the mid-1990s, when a small group of settlers, quietly beckoned by government-funded infrastructure, erected caravans on the rugged knoll.
Amona now houses a synagogue, a basketball court and about 300 residents. It became a symbol of settler defiance when Israel demolished nine of its structures in 2006, sparking violent clashes between settlers and Israeli security forces.
In 2008, the Palestinian landowners, represented by lawyers from the Israeli legal rights group Yesh Din, petitioned the Supreme Court to have the outpost removed, setting off a yearslong struggle.
The state agreed to peacefully demolish the outpost by the end of 2012 but the move was repeatedly delayed. What seemed like a final ruling in 2014, declaring the land private Palestinian property, gave Israel until Dec. 25, 2016, to carry out the evacuation. But under fierce pressure from settlers and their supporters in parliament, the government secured a 45-day extension until early February. There is still no alternate housing solution for the 40 families living in Amona.
The landowners watched with frustration as their lands were taken. Yesh Din says reports about land theft filed with Israeli police in the late 1990s went unaddressed and Palestinian attempts to draw awareness to the issue were thwarted. In a 1998 letter provided by Yesh Din, Israeli authorities warned Palestinians against holding Friday prayers in Amona, saying it would constitute an "illegal activity" that could spark "a confrontation with residents."
The outpost has dominated headlines in Israel and the settlers' fate has posed a serious risk to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, after the pro-settler Jewish Home party threatened to walk out over it.
The landowners are perplexed by a proposed solution to move the settlers to a northern perch on the same hilltop, an offer that is likely to face legal hurdles. Yesh Din said that keeping the Amona residents on the same hilltop could block Palestinian access to their land.
"It's hard for them. They went through a lot of highs and lows," said Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for Yesh Din. "They won every legal battle. They did everything by the book and ... every time there is another attempt to outsmart them."
In addition to the unauthorized outposts, there are some 120 Jewish settlements Israel considers legal. Both settlements and outposts are opposed by the international community as well as the Palestinians.
Last month, the settlements were at the center of a showdown between Israel and its closest ally, the U.S., at the U.N. Security Council, where the Obama administration allowed a resolution to pass that challenged the legality of the settlements. The episode marked a low point in the frosty ties between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.
U.S. officials said that after previously vetoing anti-Israel resolutions, they felt compelled to abstain because of continued Israeli settlement construction and a recent effort to retroactively legalize dozens of illegal outposts in exchange for compensation for the original Palestinian landowners.
While Israeli hard-liners and settlers appear emboldened by the election of Donald Trump, who has criticized the U.N. resolution and indicated he will be more tolerant of settlement activity, it appears to be too late for Amona.
The outpost legalization bill was originally meant to find a legal loophole that could keep Amona intact. But it was removed from the bill after a coalition member refused to support a law that would circumvent a Supreme Court decision. After winning initial approval last month, the legislation is stuck in a committee being prepared for final parliamentary approval. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's office said the timing for the vote remains unclear.
The settlers dispute the court's ruling, and say an $80,000 compensation claim granted to some of the Palestinian landowners in a civil suit in 2014 should negate the case. Nonetheless, they have told the court they will peacefully leave their homes by the deadline with or without a government housing solution.
"The state of Israel is dragging its feet on this whole thing and is not legalizing a settlement that it could have easily legalized. Unfortunately it will be a tragedy when in some 40 days I am supposed to move for no reason," said Eli Greenberg, a spokesman for the outpost.
With the settlers girding for an evacuation, the Palestinians are cautiously planning for a return to the hilltop.
"We want to replant it. It was planted with grapes, now we will plant it with olives," said Atallah Hamed, 64, who said he owns about eight acres (three hectares) of Amona land. "We want to make it green again."