Silwad, occupied West Bank – From the side of Route 449, just south of the occupied West Bank town of Silwad, Atallah Abdelhafez can almost make out the land where he and his father used to harvest grapes each autumn.
“I used to go and work the land – cultivate the soil, trim the trees – and I used to sleep there, sometimes by myself, in the summer,” Abdelhafez told Al Jazeera.
The edge of this busy road, which runs from the central West Bank city of Jericho to just outside Ramallah, is the nearest he can come to see his family’s 34 dunams of land.
“All of it was covered in grape trees. It’s mostly along the top of the hill,” he said, pointing to a forested ridge. “The last time I visited was in 2000, 16 years ago, but since then I have been prevented from doing so by settlers and the army.”
On the distant hilltop, a group of white trailers and two water tanks stand next to a cluster of pine trees. The ridge marks the northern tip of Amona, an Israeli settler outpost deemed by Israel’s high court in a landmark 2014 ruling to have been built illegally on privately owned land. The court ruled that the outpost must be fully evacuated by the end of December 2016.
Amona was founded two decades ago by students who described themselves as Jewish pioneers revitalising an ancient homeland.
Among the earliest settlers was Avichay Buaron, who has led a campaign to prevent Amona’s evacuation. Buaron told Al Jazeera that the land was not being used for agriculture or housing when they arrived in early 1996 – a claim disputed by Palestinian landowners – and noted that the state encouraged and aided its foundation.
“When we came to these mountains, the government helped us. The government said this land … was state land. We didn’t come to steal something from someone,” he said. “If the government sent us and there are problems, then the government must solve the problems.”
Israel’s right-wing government, which includes settlers in senior cabinet positions, has responded to the looming evacuation with a controversial plan to relocate Amona to nearby land.
Conceived by a specially formed ministry of justice committee, the relocation plan, which relies on Israel’s abandoned property law, was presented in early August to the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, who ordered an investigation into the status of the land around Amona.
On August 11, the Israeli Civil Administration published the plan in a Palestinian newspaper, showing 30 plots of land marked for the potential relocation of Amona and calling on Palestinians who claimed ownership of that land to come forward within 60 days.
While the proposal has yet to be approved, the premise of using abandoned property to build a settlement has been condemned by the US State Department and Israeli human rights groups.
If this legal position would be adopted, it would be a huge blow to the idea that Israel maintains or respects private property of Palestinians.
Michael Sfard, a lawyer with the Israeli NGO Yesh Din, told Al Jazeera that such a move would be a “revolution” in the way that property rights are handled in the occupied territories.
“Until now, abandoned property, which is property whose owner is not in the territory, was considered to be private property that must be guarded [by the state] and definitely cannot be used for the long term, and not in a different manner than it was used,” Sfard told Al Jazeera.
“So if it’s an agricultural parcel of land, the only thing that the authorities can do is keep this parcel for the owner and continue cultivating it. You cannot change the purpose of a property in such a dramatic way as to have an agricultural property become a residential area [for settlers] – in that way you change it for the long term … If this legal position would be adopted, it would be a huge blow to the idea that Israel maintains or respects private property of Palestinians.”
In the coming weeks, Mandelblit is expected to reveal his position on the relocation proposal, amid mounting pressure from the government and settlers to find a solution for the 40 families currently living in Amona. Buaron said the community would focus its energy on preventing any kind of evacuation.
“If the police come to evacuate us, we will fight against it,” he said. “It won’t be easy. We are planning to bring 15-20,000 people to Amona to sit on the floor. We won’t raise hands on our brothers, but it will be very difficult to evacuate us.”
Meanwhile, with his legal right to his own family’s land confirmed by the 2014 court decision, Abdelhafez was cautiously optimistic that he would be able to return to his land within months, as the evacuation of Amona looms.
“I am really hopeful that I will be able to go back to my land,” he said. “I want to plant grapes and almond trees and to maintain it well, like it was before.”