Legal figures expressed surprise that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had thrown his support behind Netanyahu's move to oppose the demolition of the structures built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank settlement of Beit El.
One legal figure said on Saturday that Weinstein had gone far beyond what had been acceptable to previous attorney generals, and that "international law cannot be ignored. It's hard to believe that the High Court would support such a policy."
Referring to Beit El's Ulpana neighborhood, the state told the High Court of Justice on Friday that "the implications of the demolition of the buildings could be severe" for the settlers. It said that since the construction started in the 1980s, demolishing the buildings could have "broader social implications" for other construction in Beit El and in other settlements.
The head of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "and his ministers are breaking a pledge to the High Court in a crude and unprecedented manner and are placing the settlers in the territories above the law." Oppenheimer said the government had decided "to satisfy a few thousand settlers who are members of the Likud Central Committee."
The people in the Ulpana neighborhood welcomed the government's reversal.
In a statement, the residents said "all government officials now understand that the Ulpana neighborhood is just the tip of the iceberg of 9,000 housing units in Judea and Samara that the government must find solutions for. In any case, in the Galilee, the Negev, East Jerusalem and throughout the free world, flourishing neighborhoods are not razed to the ground, even if the government made a mistake and established a neighborhood on land where [legal] arrangements had not been made."
Attorney Michael Sfard, who is working to have the buildings taken down, said the government had "declared war on the rule of law."
The state's announcement was signed by the State Prosecutor's Office and the Justice Ministry's department of High Court petitions.
The state, which was responding to a High Court petition by Sfard, says it is "well aware of the significance" of its reversal, but that "circumstances require a reevaluation of the situation."
It said "the prime minister and the forum of [senior] ministers request a reevaluation of the means for implementing the policy on which they have decided" - referring to the demolition of the buildings.
It conceded that a probe by the Israel Defense Forces' Civil Administration "revealed that parts of the settlement of Beit El were built over the years not in accordance with the law, in an area most of which is on private Palestinian land."
But it had opted for "a reevaluation of the priorities of enforcing the law in the region, along with the planning and ownership implications and the political, public and operational aspects."
The state added that the "overall high priority of dealing with construction on private land" would continue. But "according to the new principles, each and every building should not be examined narrowly, and priorities for enforcement cannot be set in Judea and Samaria without seeing the whole picture." It said Beit El reflected the "need for an updated policy."
According to Sfard, "the Israeli government today has declared war on the rule of law. In its political zeal to help steal Palestinian land, it is destroying the basis of values on which the state was founded."
Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom said on a visit to Ulpana on Friday that he sought a way to allow the buildings to remain. He said "it's inconceivable that people who came to live here legally should find themselves under threat of eviction." According to Shalom, the matter should be treated as a land dispute and solved in the courts, the way such disputes are solved on the other side of the Green Line.
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