Settlers who went too far - even for Netanyahu

Donald Macintyre ventures to the village which has provoked a legal crisis in Israel

Itai Harel gazed across at the rocky wilderness of the Judaean Mountains and urged us to "look at all this wonderful, empty land all the way from Jerusalem, waiting for its sons to come to build and live in it". It was one of the few moments that Mr Harel, a 38-year-old social worker, turned lyrical in helping to explain why he, his wife and six children are living with 50 other families in a fenced outpost on a remote hilltop east of the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Standing by the stables Mr Harel uses for the successful therapeutic riding centre he runs, you would hardly guess that Israel's Supreme Court has ordered that every structure here should be evacuated and demolished in little more than eight weeks. Or that the outpost has become the crucible for a political and judicial trial of strength; one which may decide whether Israel's government is prepared to put any limits at all on illegal Jewish West Bank settlement.

This peaceful winter morning, children are clambering over the slides in the playground of one the community's two kindergartens. The water tower and electricity pylons, like the road that winds up the hillside to the summit, testify to the generous $4m-worth of help the community has had from governmental agencies since its establishment a decade ago. So too do the Israel Defence Force soldiers on protective duty here.

Yet this is part of the Migron paradox – there is absolutely nothing legal about it. Forget about international law, which most democratic governments believe is violated by all Jewish settlement in occupied territory. Like another 100 such unauthorised outposts, which started to spring up in the 1990s to get round Israel's promise to build no new actual settlements, it has no basis in Israeli law. Moreover, government departments have regularly confirmed, and the Supreme Court accepted, that Migron was built on land privately owned by individual Palestinians and their families in the nearby villages of Burqa and Deir Dibwan, which makes it doubly illegal.

In her judgment, issued after repeated unfulfilled promises to evacuate the Migron residents, the Chief Justice, Dorit Beinisch, declared unequivocally that "we can only hope residents [of Migron] accept their duty not to behave as hooligans and resettle in any other place the state allows them."

Mr Harel is hardly an obvious "hooligan", insisting he wants a peaceful solution. But his ideological belief in his right to live where he chooses in the West Bank is not in doubt. "Look, my father survived the Holocaust, his little brother was killed. He tried to come to Israel after the war when he was six with his parents and another brother and the British sent them to Cyprus. He fought in the troops that liberated Jerusalem [in the 1967 Six Day war]."

Mr Harel, who believes it is for the voters and not the courts to decide the fate of the land, adds: This is my history. Is this the land of my forefathers or is it occupied territory? I think most Israelis know the answer."

The Supreme Court order has raised the spectre of an evacuation even more violent than in 2006, when nine houses were evacuated in another illegal outpost, Amona, on which thousands of right-wing settlers converged. As it is, the demolition of three houses here resulted in a series of "price tag" attacks by settlers, which included vandalised and burned mosques in several Palestinian villages. (Migron settlers are adamant none of them took part.)

The Netanyahu government has now proposed a remarkable "compromise", under which the outpost is removed to another approved site 2km away. It is still in occupied territory of course, but on officially designated "state land".

Hagit Ofran, from the advocacy group Peace Now, believes the move may only be a delaying tactic. But in any case, she argues: "It would mean that the Israeli government would establish a new settlement and would send out the message that if you steal Palestinian land without authority, and threaten the use of violence, we will build you a new settlement on the taxpayer's account. It's outrageous."

Outrageous or not, the offer has not yet been accepted by the settlers, who have been bolstered by right-wingers in the Netanyahu coalition who are arguing in favour of primary legislation retrospectively to legalise the outpost – a move which Peace Now argues would "signal the settlers to continue to build outposts without permission and to create facts on the ground."

A few kilometres away in Burqa, Abdel Khader Mohammed Samarin, 72, a leader of the local Palestinian landowners group who petitioned the Supreme Court, looked out across the lovely valley which separates the Palestinian village from Migron. Mr Samarin, who says he lost 16 acres of land out of the 500 seized to make way for the outpost, said: "I want to appeal to Tony Blair as head of the Quartet to pressure Israel to let us have our land back. I want to appeal to the world."

But he added: "My hope is weak. I don't think they are going to do this." And that analysis, at least, is shared by Mr Harel. "Come back in the summer when it is warmer and I'll take you horse riding," he said. "In Migron."

How the land lies: Settling disputes

Settlements remain a constant source of friction between Israel and the Palestinians, with the issue touching on political, religious and territorial claims.

More than half a million Jewish settlers – encouraged by successive Israeli governments – live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which were seized by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Along with Gaza, these territories are considered the basis of a future Palestinian state, and the international community views all settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace.

Rapid expansion of settlements has driven many to despair of a two-state solution. Israel wants the largest settlements to remain in Israel in any deal, a solution that critics say would effectively result in Palestinian "bantustans", or isolated self-governing enclaves, in the West Bank.

Settlers determined to assert Israel's claim to the West Bank are motivated by financial, security and religious reasons. Many consider the West Bank part of their historic birthright.

The situation is even more intractable in East Jerusalem, coveted by the Palestinians as their future capital. Israel asserts sovereignty over Jerusalem, and 250,000 settlers live in the Arab-dominated east of the city.

Outposts – makeshift communities built without Israel's authorisation – have proved a particular thorn in Israel's side. Migron, built on private Palestinian land, is the largest of these.

Under the Bush-era "road map" in 2003, Israel committed to dismantling outposts built after 2001. Migron was one, but efforts to move it have been blocked by right-wing opponents, and settlers have threatened to make it a key battleground if the state attempts to dismantle it.

Catrina Stewart

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick