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

Arts and Entertainment
'A voice untroubled by time': Kate Bush
musicReview: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
News
peopleJustin Bieber accuses papparrazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
Life and Style
tech
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
people
Voices
voices
Sport
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
News
Ukrainian Leonid Stadnik, 37, 2.59 meter (8,5 feet) tall, the world's tallest living man, waves as he poses for the media by the Chevrolet Tacuma car presented to him by President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev on March 24, 2008.
newsPeasant farmer towered at almost 8'5'' - but shunned the limelight
News
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in ‘The Front Page’, using an old tech typewriter
media
Life and Style
Could a robot sheepdog find itself working at Skipton Auction Mart?
techModel would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian
film
Sport
Angel Di Maria poses with Louis van Gaal after signing for Manchester United
sportWinger arrives from Real Madrid and could make debut on Saturday
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Hooked on classical: cellist Rachael Lander began drinking to combat panic attacks
musicThe cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow...
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Organisational Change/ Transition Project Manager

£500 - £550 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently...

Assistant Management Accountant - Tunbridge Wells, Kent

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Assistant Management Accountant - Tunbridge Wells a...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Accountacy Tutor

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Randstad Education is looking...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis