ON its own, it seemed like an encouraging omen to anyone alarmed by the increasing entrenchment of Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli security forces last week forcibly evacuated hardliners from a Palestinian house in the volatile city of Hebron, to the fury of the settlers and their backers.
Hours earlier, Benjamin Netanyahu had intervened to halt the eviction; now he said the rule of law must prevail. Had the prime minister had a change of heart? Did the Hebron drama signal a new tough approach against radical settlers and their supporters inside his cabinet?
It seemed not. Shortly after the operation, it emerged that Netanyahu was seeking ways of ‘legalising’ four settler outposts in the West Bank whose demolition had been ordered by Israel’s courts because they were built either on privately owned Palestinian land or without permits. These outposts have been ruled illegal under Israeli law. Under international law all settlements in occupied territory are illegal.
One, Ulpana, has been the subject of a protracted legal challenge over land ownership, which ended with the Supreme Court ordering its demolition by the end of this month. On the day of the Hebron eviction, Netanyahu asked the attorney general “to see to it that [Ulpana] not be evacuated”.
He also instructed that the status of the other three outposts, built without authorisation, “be provided for”. If permits are retrospectively granted, they will gain the status of settlements. The last West Bank settlement to be authorised by the government was in 1999.
Netanyahu said: “The principle that has guided me is to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank].”
Critics say that rather than upholding the rule of law, Netanyahu is seeking to change, bend or bypass it in order to protect illegal outposts. Referring to Ulpana, Shlomo Zacharia, the lawyer for the Palestinian landowners, was quoted as saying: “The prime minister, in effect, is demanding that the attorney general find a way to prevent the return of stolen property to its legal owners.”
None of this bodes well for the diminishing prospects of any agreement on borders and territories with the Palestinians. The international consensus is that a deal would take the big settlement blocs across the pre-1967 ‘green line’ on to the Israeli side of a new border, with compensatory land incorporated into the new state of Palestine. Other settlements dotted around the West Bank would have to be evacuated.
Israeli politicians and officials speak of “painful sacrifices and compromises” being required to reach a deal.
— The Guardian, London