Arab landowners on the West Bank of the Jordan River have asked Israel's supreme court ot cite the military government for contempt for allowing Jewish settlers to continue construction in defiance of a restraining order issued last month.
The landowners charged is a petition that the Israeli military government has looked the other way while Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc) settlers at the Beit El settlement near Ramillah have continued construction in the face of a court order issued Sept. 17.
Supporters of the 12 landowners said that soon after the order was issued, the settlers resumed work on the approximately 30 prefabricated houses at Beit El, which is just outside the perimeter of an army base.
The court case is unrelated to the settlement freeze controversy that followed the Camp David summit meeting. That freeze applies to new civilian settlements, not construction on those that already exist. But the case underscores the delicate problems surrounding Israeli acquisition of West Bank land for civilian settlments, which has been bitterly contested in the Arab world and which led to Egypt's demand for the freeze on new projects.
Under the restraining order, Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and the commander of the West Bank military government, whose headquarters is nearby, were required to ensure that all work cease pending a hearing to determine whether the order should be made permanent.
The landowners had complained that the site was appropriated illegally, since under The Hague and Geneva conventions an occpuying power can seize private property for military purposes only.At Beit El, as in several other settlements, the site was orginally acquired as a paramilitary outpost, and then transformed into a civilian settlement.
Coming on the heels of a similar restraining order issued in May against a government-approved settlement at Nebi Salah, also near Ramallah, last month's court decision was viewed by West Bank Arabs as a victory in their campaign against expropriation of private Arab property for civilian settlements.
A supporter of the Arab landowners' case said yesterday he had visited the site and had seen compressors, tractors, bulldozers and other heavy equipment being used. Also, he said, the settlers were installing utility poles and solar panels for hot water.
"All these things the authorities knew about. It is happening just outside the entrance of the army base. How could they not know?" he said.
During a recent visit to Beit El, there was no evidence of heavy construction. Almost all the settlers had left to commute to jobs in Jerusalem.
"Officially, we've been told not to even move a pail," said one settler who would not identify himself. "Unofficially, there are certain minimum things that have to be done, or our people will break and move away," he said.
He said, for example, that sewer ditches open at the time of the court order were being filled in because of a hazard to children and that "minor" modifications to houses were continuing.
A spokesman for the military government would not comment on the contempt application. But he said Friday that one of the Beit El settlers was arrested and charged with violating the restraining order.
The spokesman said the settler, who was caught building a small wood and metal outbuilding, claimed he was only making a Succot shed, a small temporary religious structure used by Orthodox Jews for worshipping and eating meals during the seven Succot holy days this week.
"The person responsible for this deed will be brought to trial," the military spokesman said.
Unlike many other Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley - established agricultural collectives started soon after the 1967 war - Beit El, by all appearances, seems to be a hastily constructed pretext for establishing Jewish presence in the occupied area.
With no evidence of agricultural or industrial development, the settlement is essentially a bedroom community for commuters to Jerusalem. Some residents live there only on the Sabbath.
Ramallah, the main town near Beit El, lies only about 10 miles north of Jerusalem, on the main road leading northward up the West Bank.
The Gush Emunim believe the entire West Bank, which they call by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, belongs to the Jewish people because of the Jewish presence there in biblical times. Prime Minister Menachem Begin long supported that position but his stand has become less clear since the Camp David summit meeting.
West Bank Arabs have claimed that settlements like Beit El are constructed only to make Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank a more difficult decision for the government to make in the future.