West Bank outpost at center of Israeli battle over rule of law

This forlorn wind-whipped rise is not much to look at. It is topped with a set of dingy trailers, a basketball hoop, a water tower and a pair of antennas.

But in recent months, the hilltop settlement has taken on great symbolic weight as the focus of a legal fight whose outcome most everyone involved says could shape the direction of Israel. The case came closer to a head this week, when Israel’s supreme court upheld its previous ruling that 49 Jewish families were illegally living here on Palestinian-owned land and rejected a government plan to delay its destruction by three years.

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(By Laris Karklis/The Washington Post/The Washington Post) - A map locating Migron, a jewish settlement in the West Bank

The pending eviction, the first ordered by the nation’s highest court, has been touted by backers as a victory for the rule of law, the health of Israeli democracy and even the potential for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, who hope to build a state in the occupied West Bank where Migron sits.

But from the view of this outpost and its supporters, the decision signaled the erosion of the Zionist enterprise by leftist forces colluding with a judiciary that has overstepped its authority, stoking the prospect of clashes between Israeli police and settlers who resist orders to move.

“You don’t build a house in Israel to be destroyed,” said Migron resident Aviela Deitch, 39, referring to the rolling West Bank terrain surrounding the outpost, part of the land ultra-nationalist settlers believe was given by God to the Jews. “This is home. This is the final stopping point.”

Most foreign governments deem all Israeli settlements, which house more than 300,000 Jews in the West Bank, as illegal. Israel distinguishes between settlements it approved and dozens of unauthorized outposts, including Migron. But Israeli authorities have rarely moved to dismantle the outposts, and many have been provided roads, water pipes and electricity by the government.

With the threat of conflict hovering over it, Migron has emerged as a test for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose ruling coalition includes right-wing pro-settlement parties but has also come under fire for proposing bills critics say would erode Israel’s democratic character.

Some members of those parties threatened this week to abandon the alliance if the outpost is torn down; others, including members of Netanyahu’s hawkish Likud party, said they would push legislation to retroactively legalize Migron and similar outposts.

Legal experts question the constitutionality of such a move, and Netanyahu does not support it, an Israeli official said. Binyamin Begin, a Cabinet member who is the prime minister’s Migron negotiator, said it would show the world that Israelis are “thieves and villains in the name of the Torah,” according to Ma’ariv, a Hebrew-language newspaper.

That appeared to be a reference to the ideology of most outpost residents, who view it as religious duty to settle in what they refer to as the greater Land of Israel. In recent years, extremist settlers have stepped up attacks on Palestinians and their property, as well as on the Israeli army, to prevent the dismantling of illegal outposts. Israeli leaders, including pro-settlement activists, have condemned the attacks.

But the Israeli government has displayed little stomach for a confrontation. Since 2003, it has avoided fulfilling its promise to the United States to dismantle outposts, and with the Iranian nuclear program now at the top of the bilateral agenda, American pressure on the settlement issue has declined.

Court authority under attack

As a court deadline to clear Migron by March 31 approached, Begin struck a deal with its settlers: To avert a violent showdown, the government would build them new houses on a nearby hill, to which they would move in 2015.

A supreme court panel unanimously rejected the idea on Sunday, denouncing it as defiance of the previous ruling and scolding the government for failing to include the Palestinian landowners, whose claim to the land was accepted by the court, in negotiations. It delayed the evacuation to Aug. 1.

“Migron is a symbol,” Michael Sfard, the Israeli attorney for the landowners, said in an interview before the Sunday decision. “The people of Israel are waiting to see if there are communities among it that are not governed by rulings of the supreme court.”

In response to the decision, Netanyahu said: “The government, just like the entire nation, accepts the decision and respects the law.”

Yet the court’s authority is under attack from other quarters.

Danny Danon, a Likud lawmaker, said he wants legislation to prevent “radical left-wing” organizations from deciding “the destiny of the Jewish community in court rather than in elections.”

The Migron case was initiated in 2006 by the anti-settlement advocacy group Peace Now.

Palestinian reaction

The destiny of Migron remains on hold. Across the stone-studded valley in the Palestinian village of Burqa, a group of men who were party to the case gathered in a small shop. The court decision made the idea of planting on their Migron lands seem closer, they said. But they expressed little faith the other Jewish settlements encircling the village, near the city of Ramallah, would be dismantled any time soon.

“If it is implemented, we will believe there is something called democracy over there,” Ahmad Barakat, 52, said of the court decision.

“Or at least justice,” said Mohammad Motan, 44.

In any event, the Migron settlers are not likely to go far. An Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the government is pursuing an arrangement that would hardly represent a defeat for the settlement movement: Migron residents would move to temporary housing, then later a new subdivision — on the same nearby hill identified in the deal the court just rejected.

Though Migron was never authorized, government agencies assisted in its establishment, so the government now has “a responsibility to help the Migron settlers relocate in a peaceful way,” the official said.

To build the new houses, the government would expand the jurisdiction of an existing settlement, a move critics say would amount to the first “new” settlement since the mid-1990s.

“People close to Netanyahu teased the Peace Now movement, saying, we should actually bless them because now we’re going to build another settlement which is not disputed legally, and it’s going to be much, much larger,” said Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

For now, though, the Migron settlers feel stunned by the court verdict, said Deitch, a Milwaukee native, speaking in the settlement’s synagogue. They are praying, she said, for a new arrangement that will prevent forced evictions and “avoid a civil war.”

“Jews raising a fist against Jews?” she said. “That should never have to happen.”

 
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