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Israeli forces move in to boot Jewish settlers from illegal outpost

AMONA, West Bank -- Israeli forces began an operation to evacuate settlers from a West Bank outpost on Wednesday whose slated destruction could rupture Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow coalition, dominated by ultranationalists who support settlements.

Forces made their way up the hill around midday Wednesday, wearing no helmets and carrying no weapons. On the hilltop, youngsters smashed tiles, gathered rusty metal bars and large rocks to erect makeshift barricades to slow their advance. Some protesters threw rocks at security forces, while others set fire to tires and trash piles.

Activists gathered in homes, praying, singing religious songs and dancing. Residents have said they plan to resist their evacuation peacefully. Some chained themselves to heavy objects and locked their doors.

A few residents left their homes with young children in their arms.

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Israeli settlers argue with officials as Israeli security forces gather at the Amona outpost, northeast of Ramallah, on February 1, 2017 to evict the hardline occupants of the illegal settlement outpost in line with a High Court ruling that determined the homes were built on private Palestinian land. Getty

Bilha Schwarts, 24, came along with her husband and nine-month-old daughter to support the residents. “If they want it they can take it, we will not fight. We will leave but we will come back,” she told The Associated Press

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri said that as part of “the dialogue” with residents ahead of the evacuation, one of the families handed over to officers a bag of stun grenades and other munitions of that caliber. She called on residents and settler leaders to exercise restraint.

Amona is the largest of about 100 unauthorized outposts erected in the West Bank without permission but generally tolerated by the Israeli government. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that Amona was built on private Palestinian land and must be demolished. It has set Feb. 8 as the final date for it to be destroyed.

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Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York City September 25, 2016. Trump campaign photo

The election of Donald Trump, who has promised to be far more supportive of Israel than his predecessor, has emboldened Israel’s settlement movement. His campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, a cornerstone of two decades of international diplomacy in the region, and he has signaled that he will be far more tolerant of Israeli settlement construction.

Mr. Trump’s pick to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, New York lawyer David Friedman, is a supporter of Jewish settlement expansion. Mr. Trump’s choice of Friedman was blasted as “reckless” by some liberal Jewish groups, and decried by Palestinians.

Impact of moving U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Mr. Trump has also drawn outcry from Palestinian leaders with a campaign trail promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem, which both Israel and the Palestinians claim as their rightful capital.  

While readying to evacuate Amona, Israel announced plans to build 3,000 homes in the West Bank late Tuesday. The Palestinians claim the territory along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state -- a position that has wide international backing.

CBS Radio News correspondent Robert Berger reports that Israel curbed settlement construction under pressure from former President Obama, who saw the settlements as an obstacle to peace. Israel has announced plans to build more than 6,000 homes in West Bank settlements since President Trump took office.   

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The Amona outpost, built in the 1990s, stretches out over a rugged, grassy hilltop and looks out across the valley onto Palestinian villages. In 2006, Israeli police demolished nine homes at Amona, setting off clashes pitting settlers and their supporters against police and soldiers. Several dozen trailers have remained and the outpost has become a symbol for the settlement movement.

About 50 families, some 250 people, live in Amona now. In recent weeks dozens of mostly young supporters, including high school students, have arrived to face off against Israeli forces.

“This is a dark day for us, for Zionism, for the state and for the great vision of the Jewish people returning to its homeland,” Avichay Buaron, a spokesman for Amona, told Channel 2 TV.

The fate of Amona has threatened to destabilize Netanyahu’s narrow coalition that includes the pro-settler party Jewish Home and other hardliners.

Netanyahu has struggled to find a balance between appeasing his settler constituents and respecting Israel’s Supreme Court, which has drawn the ire of hard-liners by ruling against the settlers.

Bezalel Smotrich, a lawmaker from the Jewish Home party, was one of several politicians who went to Amona to show support. “There is a great pain, a huge disappointment. They are uprooting a community in Israel. It is a terrible thing,” he told Channel 2 TV.