By Alex Traiman/JNS.org
Demolition orders for a West Bank Jewish community, plans to build a replacement for that community, and proposed legislation that would legalize more Israeli settlements are at the center of ongoing internal political debate in Israel and intense international scrutiny.
The Israeli government petitioned the country’s High Court of Justice last week for a seven-month extension on a court ruling to evacuate and demolish Amona, a 40-home Jewish outpost in the West Bank, currently ordered to be carried out by Dec. 25. The extension would give the government time to advance and complete the building of a 98-home replacement location for the Amona community several miles to the north, adjacent to the nearby settlement of Shiloh.
Members of Israel’s Knesset legislature have also postponed an upcoming vote on new legislation, known as the “Arrangement Law,” that would legalize outposts—or settlements that did not receive appropriate administrative authorizations and are therefore illegal, according to Israeli law—by compensating the land’s Palestinian claimants with alternative tracts of state-owned land as well as financial reparations.
Supporters of Jewish rights to live in Amona and of the Arrangement Law support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that settlements—including outposts—are not at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while opponents of settlements insist that the Jewish presence in much of the West Bank obstructs possible efforts to create a Palestinian state.
What’s the practical difference between a settlement and an outpost? Eugene Kontorovich—a professor at Northwestern University School of Law as well as an expert on international law and the Arab-Israeli conflict—told JNS.org that “the difference is purely a bureaucratic issue. An outpost is a settlement that did not get certain permits from the government.”
Israel’s Deputy Attorney-General Avi Licht said this week that the attorney-general’s office considered the proposed bill to legalize outposts “indefensible” before the High Court of Justice.
Several members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition sharply criticized Licht’s announcement, including Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who responded that Israel is “a country that has a court, not a court that has a country. In this matter, like many others, there is no problem to find a legal solution.”
According to Kontorovich, any plans to legalize or build settlements will receive immense international scrutiny. “Almost all of the concern is based on international diplomatic reaction,” Kontorovich told JNS.org. “There is a fear of international retaliation.”
Seeking to take advantage of these sensitivities, numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have investigated the ownership status of lands on which outposts are built, and have identified Palestinians with legal claims to the land in question, bringing these claims to Israel’s High Court.
Further complicating the status of the outposts is that these lands were fallow for decades, if not centuries, prior to the modern Israeli construction. Further, many outposts received initial government funding, even though they later failed to receive full administrative approvals.
Amona received NIS 2.16 million ($570,000) from Israel’s Ministry of Housing and Construction prior to its establishment in 1995.
Amit Gilutz—a spokesman for B’Tselem, one of the NGOs that challenges Israel’s settlement enterprise—told JNS.org that “it is Israel’s duty to withdraw all its citizens from all settlements in the occupied territories; those it considers legal and those it considers illegal. It is clear however, that it has no intention of doing so.”
In an attempt to remain sensitive to the Jewish residents of the settlements and to the government’s coalition members, who by and large support a legal Jewish presence in the West Bank in the absence of a formal peace agreement with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has preferred to relocate settlements ordered evacuated by the court to nearby communities on West Bank lands that are owned legally by the State of Israel.
B’Tselem and several other NGOs argue that replacing one settlement with another may solve isolated land ownership claims, but does little to solve the question of the Jewish presence across the West Bank. B’Tselem’s research director, Yael Stein, argued that the compensation which the Israeli government may wish to give to the evacuated residents of Amona “cannot be more houses in the West Bank.”
Yet Jews are not the only ones building illegal houses in the West Bank. According to Josh Hasten, the international spokesman for Regavim, a watchdog organization that monitors illegal Arab and Bedouin building on state lands, “the quantity of illegal building of Jewish homes pales in comparison to the rampant building of Bedouin homes on State lands in the Negev, as well as illegal Arab construction in the West Bank’s Area C—lands that were partitioned as part of the Oslo Accords as being under full Israeli administrative control.”
“Yet the [High] Court has been reluctant to take on illegal Arab building with the same fervor as they rule on illegal Jewish communities,” Hasten told JNS.org.
Northwestern University’s Kontorovich, who is also a senior researcher at the Kohelet Policy Forum think tank, there is a deeper problem at the core of the debate over whether to evacuate Jewish settlements.
“The open secret of the peace process that everyone knows about, but is afraid to talk about, is that the Palestinians have a demand that is unprecedented in the modern history of national movements or peacemaking: they will only accept a state if it has been pre-cleansed of Jews,” Kontorovich said.
The issue of the Palestinians’ demand must be openly addressed by Israel and the international community, he said.
“That is a demand that is so morally outrageous, also so obviously inconsistent with a true desire for peace and coexistence,” said Kontorovich, “that the only way the international community has chosen to deal with it is by pretending it doesn’t exist.”