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

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