Deadline looming over Israel settlement evacuation

January 26, 2012 - 3:45 PM
Israel Settlement Showdown

In this photo taken Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 Jewish children play in the unauthorized West Bank Jewish settlement of Migron. About 300 people live in Migron, the largest of more than 100 enclaves settlers set up without official authorization. Israel's Supreme Court ruled that Migron was built on private Palestinian land and must be dismantled by the end of March 2012. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

MIGRON OUTPOST, West Bank (AP) — Religious nationalists living in a rogue settlement on a wind-swept West Bank hilltop are defying the Israeli government's plans to evict them, setting up a showdown that has threatened to rip the ruling coalition apart.

The outcome could hurt Israel internationally should it choose to again flout its 2003 promise to Washington to knock down Migron and other unauthorized settler enclaves built on land Palestinians claim for a future state.

The government says the settlers of Migron — 100 adults and 200 children living in a jumble of cramped trailers — seized the territory unlawfully in 2001 from private Palestinian landowners. Settlers deny the claim, saying Arab plaintiffs haven't been able to prove ownership of the land.

Israel's Supreme Court has ordered the government to remove them by March 31.

But with hardline lawmakers threatening to bolt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition if Migron is dismantled, and a history of clashes with settlers in mind, officials are scrambling to find a solution that will satisfy both settlers and a court impatient with government delays.

Leaders insist they will carry out the court order if no compromise is reached.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has tried for years to negotiate a solution with Migron leaders, said this week "it's out of the question" that settlers will remain on private Palestinian land. "It undercuts the rule of law and the supremacy of law and our position vis-a-vis the world, on the one hand, and our citizens on the other hand," he told Israel Radio.

The settlers believe it is their religious duty to settle this patch of the biblical Land of Israel and say they won't abandon their stronghold 10 miles (15 kilometers) north of Jerusalem, overlooking the main north-south road in the West Bank.

"It won't reach that point," Migron spokesman Itai Chemo said.

The international community opposes all Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. But Israel distinguishes between the 121 settlements established in accordance with official procedures and the more than 100 unauthorized "outposts" that skirted the process and are considered illegal.

Although the government did not officially approve the building of such enclaves, home to several thousand Israelis, the settlers have managed to work the system to their advantage to secure military protection or hook up their communities to utility grids.

Israeli governments have occasionally dismantled isolated structures in the enclaves, in some cases resulting in riotous confrontations with settlers and masses of supporters who flocked to the scene.

These standoffs chilled the government's ardor to evacuate the outposts it promised to dismantle, and years of negotiating with the settlers began. The negotiations have emboldened Migron's residents, who reject the state's claim that Palestinians own the land.

Migron is the largest outpost and has come to symbolize settler defiance.

A top security official told The Associated Press that the authorities are ready to take down Migron when the order comes. However, the official balked at the notion of blocking roads to the site to prevent mass disturbances, suggesting that would be considered too radical a step. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under military regulations.

For months, Migron's residents have been lobbying politicians to keep the outpost in place and searching for legal maneuvers to block an evacuation. They are also holding meetings to acquaint ordinary Israelis with their cause. Their Facebook page features a clock counting down to the evacuation deadline.

Chemo, the Migron spokesman, insists residents don't want violence, and predicts they will reach a compromise with the government.

"We will sit with the prime minister and find a solution to this story," said Chemo, a social worker who moved to Migron eight years ago.

On Sunday, the government proposed building them houses a mile (two kilometers) away, but settlers spurned that proposal, just as they rejected an earlier one to relocate to a nearby settlement.

Critics berated the government for offering Migron a new settlement instead of punishing it for its illegal actions.

If the government lets the March 31 deadline slide, it would embarrass leaders who profess to respect the rule of law.

"All governments have red lines that must not be crossed," said Talia Sasson, a former government prosecutor who compiled a 2005 report on Migron and other unauthorized settlement outposts. "A state has to follow the rulings of its courts. That's how things work in a democratic state."

A missed deadline would also deepen international skepticism over Israel's commitment to peacemaking.

"We believe that the failure of the Israeli government to evacuate even the settlements that they consider illegal is an indicator that the Israeli government is not serious," said Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib.

In 2005, Israel forcibly evicted 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. The Gaza withdrawal, along with the smaller, violent evacuation of the Amona outpost in the West Bank the following year, are widely considered national traumas because of scenes of clashes between settlers and security forces.

Nahum Barnea, commentator for the Yediot Ahronot daily, thinks "it's hard to see a showdown over Migron."

"It's very difficult to evacuate settlements, outposts, whatever you call them, after they've struck root," he said. "No one in the coalition is pressing. ... There isn't even public pressure. They'll find a legal gimmick to put off a solution."

The current government, like its predecessors, has been sympathetic to the settler movement, which stretches back more than four decades.

Many coalition lawmakers want Migron legalized, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was reported telling political allies the ruling coalition would collapse if West Bank outposts come down.

On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom declared, "Migron is eternal. It came here to stay."

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Dan Perry contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.