The Israeli government is looking for ways to avoid evacuating a settlement built on private Palestinian land.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has until the end of the month to try and solve the political crisis over the evacuation of Ulpana Hill, a neighborhood built on private Palestinian land in the settlement of Beit El. Netanyahu has made it clear that he will do everything in his power to keep the settlers on site (though he didn’t rule out moving them to a nearby hill, to which there is no private claim).
The Supreme Court ordered the evacuation of Ulpana Hill several months ago, after the Israeli prosecution informed the court that it had issued orders for the houses to be destroyed and the land returned to its Palestinian owners. The government, however, is reluctant to evacuate Jewish settlers regardless of the land’s legal status. Over the weekend, several ministers attacked Defense Minister Ehud Barak for his intention to remove the settlers from Ulpana Hill and other “illegal” outposts.
While the international community doesn’t recognize the legality of the settlement project, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in the late 70s that the defense minister can allow the construction of Jewish settlements on occupied land, as long as it is not privately owned by Palestinians. The verdict led to the construction of dozens of settlements, which are now home to more than 300,000 Israeli Jews.
In the last decade, several cases of settlements built on private Palestinian land led to Supreme Court rulings ordering the evacuation of the houses. Migron and Ulpana Hill are among the most well-known of those cases. In the case of Ulpana Hill, there wasn’t even much of a dispute, since the state itself ordered the evacuation of the houses. But as was the case with many other settlements, the state also provided the infrastructure for the construction it deemed illegal. Some settlers in Ulpana Hill even took mortgages in order to enter their homes.
Israeli governments have always treated settlements – regardless of their legal status – as though they are there to stay permanently.
In an attempt to avoid the evacuation of Ulpana Hill, Netanyahu has formed a committee led by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy to try to find “legal solutions” to the problem. Levy was the only Supreme Court justice who, in June 2005, deemed in a minority verdict that the Gaza disengagement plan was illegal because of the the removal of Jewish settlers from their homes.
Today (Sunday) the right-wing daily paper Makor Rishon reported on an interesting testimony befor Levy’s committee. The attorney for the Defense Ministry, Ahaz Ben Ari, informed Justice Levy that evacuation orders issued for Jews in the occupied West Bank were never meant to be implemented.
Justice Levy asked Ben Ari how it is possible that the government builds a road or provides services to a settlement, while at the same time declaring the construction illegal. Attorney Ben Ari answers (my translation):
Due to the apparent contradiction between the fiscal policy [of supporting the construction] and the legal policy, it was decided to issue the evacuation orders but not carry them out.
The government’s attempts to bypass the legal system and avoid evacuating even those outposts and houses that Israel itself claims to be illegal says a lot about the chances that Israel will evacuate larger, more established settlements. Still, the confrontation over Ulpana Hill should be put in its political context: Netanyahu’s coalition partners are aware of the coming elections, and they are looking to create enough public recognition for their positions. By pushing the evacuation of settlers in the name of “the rule of law,” Defense Minister Barak is aiming at the Israeli center, while ministers attacking him are trying to establish their position as leaders of the Likud’s right flank.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) issued a letter to Justice Levy’s committee against the flawed distinction between “authorized” and “unauthorized” settlements, claiming that both types “constitute clear and blatant violations of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which concerns the protection of civilians during war.”