After Defeat in Migron, Israeli Settlers Prepare for the Legal Battles Ahead

Chaim Levinson says that the West Bank outpost's ultimate clearing has pushed the settlement movement to the realization that the only way to beat the State Prosecutor's Office is to join it.

While the residents of the West Bank outpost of Migron vacated their homes on Sunday, Yehuda Yifrach and Benny Gal, leaders of the Amona and Givat Assaf outposts, respectively, were pacing between the outpost’s houses. Now that the Migron affair has come to an end, it will be their outposts that are next in line for evacuation.

Gal and Yifrach have been leading the hard-liners in the settlements, opposing the more compromising attitude shown by the residents of Ulpana Hill (which was evacuated in June) and Migron. In May, Yifrach went on a hunger strike to promote legislation that would retroactively legalize all settlements, which some on the right saw as a shift in tactics in the legal struggle over West Bank land. Gal and his neighbors, for their part, called on Migron’s residents at least to fight over the land upon which 17 of the outpost’s houses stood, which they claimed to have purchased from its Palestinians owners. Otherwise, Givat Assaf’s residents argued, how could they continue to claim they had contributed to the settlement project?

However, the tough stand adopted by both leaders and their outposts will soon be tested. Givat Assaf, which is near the intersection that connects Beit El to the West Bank’s Route 60 and has about 25 families, was built entirely on private Palestinian land without permits and without government approval. In 2004, the state issued a demarcation order to establish the boundaries of the outpost and then defense minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the evacuation of all the illegal outposts; in 2007, Peace Now petitioned the High Court of Justice to demand the enforcement of that edict and the state pledged to demolish the outpost by the end of 2011.

Later, state representatives obtained an extension until June 2012, so as to resolve the matter in a “peaceful manner.” At the end of June, they asked for another seven months to allow time to examine the residents’ claims that they had legally purchased a portion of the land. After a hearing on the matter was scheduled for September 23, Givat Assaf residents initially expressed optimism. This gave way to concern after the precedent was set in the Migron case mandating that due process, including building permits, was still necessary, even if purchase is proven.

Matters in Amona are due to be resolved by the end of the year. The veteran outpost, which since Migron’s evacuation has become the largest one, is also built entirely on private Palestinian land. It includes about 50 structures, on top of a vineyard and a Talmud Torah religious school, after nine buildings were demolished there in the winter of 2006. In 2008, most of the outpost’s Palestinian landowners, with the support of the human rights group Yesh Din and its attorneys Michael Sfard and Shlomi Zachary, petitioned the High Court of Justice to evacuate the entire outpost. In November 2011, the state announced that handling of the matter would culminate by the end of 2012. Residents, for their part, are worried that this culmination could only mean one thing – demolition.

Residents of both outposts reached two main conclusions following Migron’s evacuation. The first has to do with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived weakness. In his current term of office, Netanyahu has resolved to stay away from conflicts with the legal system, from the Supreme Court to the State Prosecutor's Office. On the other hand, Netanyahu is doing everything he can to stop images of demolition from being published, spending millions of shekels to dismantle and relocate Ulpana Hill houses instead of razing them.

Meanwhile, the compromises he has stitched together have prevented him from making any decisions. Political activists said on Sunday that it was time to press Netanyahu up against the wall. The path of compromise, they said, allows the premier to “honor the rule of law while advancing settlements.” A hard-headed fight would force him to choose sides.

The second conclusion has to do with the need for supporters of the settlement enterprise to find their way into the State Prosecutor's Office. In this last round of talks, centering on Ulpana Hill and Migron, it was State Prosecutor's Office officials that eventually set the state’s position. In the upcoming struggle over the Levy committee report on West Bank settlements, the state’s legal officials will have more say than the battalions of settlers registered as Likud members, along with the MKs and ministers whom they influence. (A committee headed by former Supreme Court justice Edmond Levy submitted a report in July determining that Israel was not an occupier and all West Bank settlements are legal.)

A settler leader said on Sunday that eventually the historic debate over the movement’s future will be resolved by adhering to the words of Rabbi Eli Sadan of the Eli settlement: The way to influence the state is not through physical or political power but through slowly and gradually assimilating into the civil service.

“Every lawyer belonging to the national camp must vie for every legal position in the civil service. That way, in 10- to 15 years, there will be a significant cadre of right-wing legal experts and the left won’t control the State Prosecutor's Office anymore," he said.