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Clock is ticking on Israel's next move on Beit El settlement dispute

A boy walks near Israeli flags in Ulpana, on the edge of the West Bank Jewish settlement of Beit El, north of Ramallah April 22, 2012.


On a rocky hillside on the outskirts of this settlement just north of the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Israel's ultra-nationalists are making a stand.

Beit El, meaning House of God, was established 35 years ago near the site of Bethel, the Biblical spot where Jacob, grandson of Abraham and father of Joseph (of the many-coloured coat) dreamed of a ladder to heaven.

Some 6,000 Israelis, comfortably housed in suburban-style homes and apartments, follow that dream today.

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People here are religiously observant, but not particularly radical or militant, as settlers go. They believe strongly in their right to the land promised by God to Abraham and his descendents, but are not known to be among those settlers who attack nearby Palestinian villages and mosques. Indeed, their leading rabbi, Shlomo Aviner, condemns such actions.

As in the case of most settlements, the original Beit El was built on a number of hilltops that had been held by the Jordanian authorities when they occupied the land (1948-67) and by the British and Ottoman authorities before them. After Israel occupied the land in 1967, it claimed the right to allow Israeli settlement on this "public land" (a legal right that is not internationally recognized).

But, like most settlements, Beit El grew and some of the community's most recently constructed residences – five attractive apartment blocs with six family units in each one – were, it seems, built on private Palestinian land over which the Israeli government had no right to permit such settlement.

This was the finding of Israel's highest court, and the people have been given until July 1 to leave the buildings, and the Israel Defence Forces, who are responsible for law and order in the occupied territories, have been ordered to tear down the buildings.

Residents in this neighbourhood known as Ulpana (meaning a girl's school, the first structure built on the site) are at pains to show how nice and normal they are.

At an emergency meeting last week held on the grass amid children's playground equipment, the Yesha council, the body that represents almost all settlements in the West Bank, denounced the court decision and called on Israel's new unity government to find a way to circumvent the court order.

After all, they say, the Ulpana neighbourhood arose from a promise Benjamin Netanyahu made in 1996 during his first term as prime minister. Mr. Netanyahu attended a funeral of a Beit El mother and child who had been killed in a shooting ambush outside the settlement, and he vowed that a new neighbourhood would be built in their memory, one that "would never, ever be evacuated."

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Construction began in the late 1990s with two religious high schools for girls. Then, despite stop work orders issued by Israeli courts, construction on the apartment houses proceeded in the mid-2000s. In 2009, the first residents moved in.

In the view of the Yesha council: So what if the land isn't theirs, it's inhumane to throw the residents out. After all, they said, some of them were previously evicted from the Gush Katif settlement bloc in Gaza when the Gaza Strip was evacuated by Israel in 2005. It would be cruel and unusual to do this to them again, one council member said.

The clock is ticking and the Israeli cabinet is now considering its options:

1. Follow the court's order and tear down the buildings (this view is believed to have the support of Defence Minister Ehud Barak and the military leadership).

2. Ignore the order (a position assumed by some of the radical right elements of the government).

3. Pass legislation that would supersede the order (a view the right wing could accept).

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4. Pass legislation and compensate the Palestinian owners in some way (a view the right wing would reluctantly accept and some of the centrist ministers and members of parliament embrace.)

Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was at the council meeting last week giving his view: "It would be illogical and inhumane to turn these families out" he said to great applause.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear he won't flout the court's ruling. Israel's reputation for abiding by the rule of law would be badly tarnished, he argues. On the other hand, he also has said he doesn't want to hurt innocent families (and alienate the right-wing community that supports them). And then there's that 1996 promise of his...

All this points to option four as the solution the Prime Minister probably favours. But in view of the political nature of transferring Palestinian land to Israelis, any compensation would have to be negotiated with the Palestinian Authority and it's not negotiating any land transfers, at least not until all settlement construction is halted and the two sides sit down together.

The residents of Ulpana look out their windows on the homes and office towers of Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is based.

On two sides of their community they are bordered by "legal" settlement housing, with more housing soon to be built on the hillside above them.

"There's no way Palestinians are going to use this land even if we give it back to them," said one resident, referring to it being almost surrounded by Israeli housing. "So what's the point?"

"I understand their complaint," this woman said, "but surely the best solution is compensation."

The battle of Beit El is a microcosm of the entire settlement project of some 200 settlements and 300,000 people (not including those built in Jerusalem).

Built on land occupied in 1967 – the only Israeli title to which was God's words to Abraham as recorded in the Bible – the settlements' leaders are divided. Some insist that all the land of Biblical Judea and Samaria belongs to the people of Israel and nothing should be done to accommodate court rulings such as the one on Ulpana. Others are willing to see a separate Palestinian state created but shaped in such a way that biggest settlement blocs are left intact inside the boundaries of Israel.

So what if the land wasn't Israel's to give, they reason, it would be inhumane to turn all these people out. If necessary, many in that second group would be willing to support the idea of compensation being paid to the Palestinians in the form of other lands, currently inside Israel.

Down the road, when the boundaries of a Palestinian state are being negotiated, the residents of Beit El expect their community to somehow end up inside Israel. That will be a stretch since it's about 10 kilometers to the Green Line that denotes Israel's recognized boundary.

Strategically placed in those 10 km, however, sit three older settlements and two newer settler "outposts" – forming a chain linking Beit El to Israel. The outposts, Migron and Givat Assaf, built on private Palestinian land, are two of the most radical settler communities and have defied repeated court orders that they be evacuated.

Seemingly unwilling to remove their residents by force, the government now is building the people of Migron a cluster of nice suburban-style homes on other occupied land, hoping to encourage the people to leave. It remains to be seen if they'll move.

No matter what happens in Ulpana, the next battleground will likely be on these Samarian hills and will test the resolve of any Israeli government.

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