Under court order, Israel on Sunday evacuated one of the largest unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, moving to dismantle what had become a symbol of efforts by Jewish settlers to seize land without government approval.
Migron, considered the flagship of about 100 wildcat outposts built by settlers on West Bank hills, was ordered removed by the Israeli Supreme Court because it was built without official permits on land privately owned by Palestinians.
After years of legal wrangling and repeated delays by the Israeli government, the hilltop community of about 50 religiously observant families living in mobile homes was emptied with virtually no resistance from the settlers, other than a few holdouts who had to be carried off by police.
By day’s end, nearly all 300 residents had left the site, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, after being served with eviction orders. They traveled to temporary quarters at a neighboring settlement and are to move later this month into prefabricated homes built for them on a hillside about a mile from the original location of their community.
After several postponements of the evacuation, the government had tried to delay it for three more years under a compromise negotiated with the settlers, but it was compelled to act by a new court-imposed deadline.
“We are committed to the rule of law,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared after the outpost was emptied. “We are honoring the court’s rulings, and we are also strengthening settlement. There is no contradiction between the two.”
Along with the alternative housing for the Migron settlers, Netanyahu has pledged to build hundreds of residential units in West Bank settlements to offset the court-ordered evacuation in June of five apartment buildings erected on private Palestinian land in the settlement of Beit El.
Israeli settlement expansion on land that the Palestinians seek for a future state has been at the core of the current impasse in peace efforts. The Palestinians say they will not resume peace talks without a halt to the construction, a matter that Israel says should be resolved in negotiations.
Peace Now, an Israeli group that opposes the settlements and petitioned the Supreme Court with Palestinian landowners in 2006 for the removal of Migron, called the evacuation a “significant achievement for anyone who believes in the two-state solution and the democratic rules of the game.”
“We’ve proven that the settlers are not above the law and that their system of putting facts on the ground can be fought,” said Hagit Ofran, who heads Peace Now’s settlement-monitoring team. “This is a sign that settlements can be removed.”
But Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ umbrella group, said the removal of Migron would not change the larger reality of an established Israeli presence in the West Bank, where the Jewish settler population has grown to more than 300,000.
“If you look at the big picture, the process is irreversible,” Dayan said. “It can’t be stopped, and the battle against it is futile.”
Israel has 120 established settlements in the West Bank, communities that it views as legitimate, though most foreign governments consider them illegal. The smaller settlement outposts were built without official approval, but many have roads and utilities provided by state agencies.
At Migron, where the first mobile homes were set up in 2001 after the construction of an Israeli cellular antenna tower at the site, most homes were deserted by Sunday afternoon. A group of young protesters had to be hauled out of one house, and two die-hard families stayed put until police arrived.
Tami and Uri Gutman sat in the living room of their home, where nothing was packed and the outside walls were daubed with slogans denouncing Netanyahu as “good for the Arabs.” A friend held their baby. The couple, unwilling to walk out the door, was carried out by police officers.
At the home of the Deitch family, Aviela and her husband, Shalom, walked out with their children, some carrying homemade signs that said: “The eternal people is not afraid of a long journey.”
Speaking by phone from the neighboring village of Burka, Abdel Kader Matan, a Palestinian landowner, said he hoped to return some day to farm the land on which Migron stood. But he acknowledged that the prospect still seemed distant. “The hope is weak,” he said.