Israel defies court over settlements

Settlers will remain in Palestinian territory when Migron, the biggest illegal outpost in the West Bank, is demolished.

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TEL AVIV // Top Israeli officials indicated yesterday that the settlement enterprise in the occupied West Bank will continue despite the Supreme Court's rejection on Sunday of a government plan to delay dismantling a controversial outpost.

In a much-anticipated decision by activists and state officials, the Supreme Court decided to scrap a proposal by the government to put off the demolition of Migron, the biggest illegal outpost in the West Bank, until November 2015.

The proposal aimed at bypassing a court order from August to raze Migron, 32 kilometres east of Jerusalem, by March 31 because it had been built on privately-owned Palestinian land.

Sunday's ruling says the state now has until August 1 to force Migron's 50 families to leave the site.

The pro-settler government wanted the delay as part of a mid-March pact with Migron residents that would have avoided their forced removal by shifting them to a site a few kilometres away in the West Bank. Anti-settlement activists had slammed the compromise as a disgrace because it would still allow Migron settlers to remain in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Indeed, government officials yesterday appeared confident that the accord with Migron would go ahead despite the tighter schedule ordered by the court.

Benny Begin, a government minister without portfolio who had negotiated the pact with the Migron settlers, said in a radio interview that the court's decision was "merely a change to the timetable".

Mr Begin, son of Menachem Begin, a former prime minister, added: "The court did not even address the core question of the agreements that we reached…instead of the limited, cramped settlement that we have now, a new neighbourhood will be built for 200 families, and maybe more, for the glory of the state of Israel."

The Migron ruling comes amid increased international scrutiny on Israel's settlement activities. Last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced it would probe into how the settlements impact Palestinians' human rights. Israel has blasted the decision and said yesterday it would bar UN investigators from entering the country.

All Israeli settlements are considered illegal by international law. Israel, however, views 120 Jewish communities in the West Bank as legal while it deems about 100 outposts - the biggest being Migron - as having been built without its authorisation.

However, anti-settlement activists say that Migron and other outposts were constructed with tacit state approval, pointing out that most have been connected to the electricity grid and are protected by Israeli soldiers.

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has been scrambling to find a way to prevent the forcible removal of Migron residents - many of them ultranationalists - in a bid to avoid alienating settler groups and their supporters.

Yesterday, Hanan Kristal, a political commentator for state-owned radio station Kol Israel, predicted that a forced Migron evacuation would make the ruling coalition less stable and tougher to keep intact by angering the mainly pro-settler parties that are part of it.

Anti-settlement advocates yesterday appeared divided on whether the Supreme Court's decision would help or hurt Israel's settlement's activities.

Neve Gordon, a political scientist who wrote a book on Israel's West Bank occupation, said the Supreme Court did not go far enough and should have also scrapped the state's agreement with Migron altogether rather than just its timetable.

"What we actually see is a deepening of the occupation," he said. "The court did not reject the compromise, only its timing. It's another stamp of approval for the settlements and means the Supreme Court together with the government" is hindering the creation of a Palestinian state.

Mr Gordon added that the court's ruling may also mean the government can go ahead with relocating other illegal outposts to sites within the West Bank without facing Supreme Court opposition.

However, Yariv Oppenheimer, head of the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now, said Israel's Supreme Court cannot be expected to cancel the government's agreement with Migron because the court does not typically interfere in political issues involving West Bank settlement.

Mr Oppenheimer said that Sunday's court decision was "positive" because it obligates the government to obey the August ruling on dismantling Migron. It also prevents the government from delaying the eviction for more than three years and possibly trying to cancel it.

"We don't have any allusions - we cannot evacuate the West Bank by using the court. But the court can make sure the government enforces the law in the West Bank and evacuates Migron as it had previously committed to do," he said.