After settlement dismantled, Palestinians wait to return

Silwad (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Mariam Hamad remembers perfectly the day more than 20 years ago when her land was taken by Israelis to build the illegal settlement of Amona.

But a week after the Jewish village was finally demolished following a two-decade legal struggle, Hamad and other Palestinian land owners still don't know if or when they will be able to set foot on their soil again.

The tiny settlement, home to just forty families, was evacuated and demolished last week amid protests and even violence from Jewish hardliners.

Israel's courts declared it was built on private Palestinian land.

But the demolition prompted Israel's rightwing to propose a law opposing similar moves against other illegal settlements.

It passed through parliament this week in a move criticised by world powers.

Largely forgotten amid the turmoil of Amona's destruction and its wider ramifications are the six families who originally owned the land.

For them the demolition should herald a longed-for return to the land they called not Amona but simply Al-Mazarea, the farms in Arabic.

On the hilltop near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank they used to cultivate tomatoes and watermelons one year, wheat the next, said 83-year-old Hamad.

In her house in nearby Silwad she still has a sheaf of dried wheat from the last unfinished harvest.

"We worked in the fields with my husband until the settlers forced us out," Hamad remembered, saying the Jewish arrivals came armed.

"'This land is not yours, it's ours,' they said" she recalled.

Despite the demolitions, she and the other owners are waiting to see if they can return, with the Israeli army still in control.

Hamad told AFP she was "hopeful" but also had strong doubts, with other landowners also uncertain.

- How soon is 'soon'? -

The international community considers all settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem illegal, with more than 600,000 setters now living on land the Jewish state occupied in 1967.

Settlements are viewed as one of the main obstacles to peace with the Palestinians.

Israel distinguishes between government-approved settlements and what it calls "outposts" such as Amona, which are illegal and in theory should be demolished.

But the demolition of those even Israeli courts deem illegal is opposed by right wingers, many of whom argue all the West Bank was given to Israel by God.

The demolition of Amona sparked a bill passed by the Israeli parliament this week which legalised more than 50 other illegal outposts, in a move condemned by the United Nations, the European Union and others.

After Amona was formed in 1995, Hamed twice tried to return to her two-and-a-half hectares.

The first time, she said, Israeli soldiers forced her back while the second she fled because a woman was shot dead, allegedly by settlers.

Another landowner Ibrahim Yaqoub, 56, said his mother was shot and his aunt killed while approaching family land.

He has more than three hectares of land his children have never seen.

From the creation of Amona to its destruction 13 Palestinians were killed, most during demonstrations and clashes near the outpost, Abdel Rahman Saleh, the mayor of nearby Silwad, said.

"Silwad has an area of ​​1,800 hectares," he told AFP in his office, showing maps to illustrate the issue.

Of that, he said, only 500 hectares are available for cultivation, with the rest declared off limits by Israel's army.

Realising protests were unlikely to succeed, the families threw themselves into a legal battle to get their land back, with support from Israel and Palestinian NGOs.

Producing documents showing their ownership, they eventually won and now await the day they can return.

Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the Yesh Din NGO that fought the case, said everyone was "waiting" to see if the land would be handed over.

"We are hoping that it will happen and happen very soon."

He warned of other cases where the army has refused to give land back after demolitions, prompting fresh legal challenges.

"They can claim there are security reasons and this remains a closed military area," Grossman said.

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