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After four and a half years of government promises to destroy the two West Bank settlements of Hayovel and Harsha, the High Court of Justice said yesterday that it intends to examine conditions on the ground there, potentially paving the way for their formal recognition.

The High Court of Justice's deliberation over these settlements has become a symbol of other petitions to the court concerning illegal West Bank construction. The petition in question, filed by Peace Now in 2005, called on the government to enforce a demolition order for the nine homes that constitute Hayovel, which is actually an outpost of the settlement of Eli, and the seven homes in Harsha, east of the Talmonim bloc.

The state originally informed the High Court that the structures were illegal and would therefore be razed, but added that their demolition would be carried out according to a priority list drafted by the security apparatus. Since the government kept dragging its feet, the High Court judges asked it a year ago to set a timetable for the demolition.

Since the formation of the Netanyahu government, settlement leaders aided by ministers Moshe Ayalon and Limor Livnat have exerted consistent pressure on the Justice Ministry to find legal justification for preserving the houses in question.

Their pressure reaped rewards with yesterday's government announcement that before the demolition is carried out, the state intends to examine whether the areas fall under the category of state land, or are whether they are under private Palestinian ownership.

The state also said that even if the outposts are razed, it would need another six months to complete the evacuation of residents there, due to the fact that law enforcement agents are bogged down these days by monitoring the settlement freeze.

The announcement means in effect that the demolition will be postponed to an unspecified date, and may never be carried out at all.

If the investigation reveals that the area is indeed state land, the government may choose to retroactively authorize the homes, as it did on numerous occasions across the West Bank. If the land is privately owned by Palestinians, the state will be forced to either raze the structures or find some other creative solution to allow them to remain.

Peace Now secretary general Yariv Oppenheimer said in response: "The government of Israel is thumbing its nose at the rule of law and granting immunity to illegal building by settlers."

"On the same day that the Civil Administration destroyed 14 Palestinian buildings, the settlers are again being granted a judicial gift, as the process changes from evacuation to authorization. The defense minister ensures protection of the status of the Supreme Court within the Green Line - but decides to ignore the law and submit to settler pressure beyond it."