Illegal Israeli settlement faces looming deadline to be vacated

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Israel's Supreme Court has ruled that the Migron settlement must be demolished by the end of March 2012. (Photo by Noam Sharon.)

In the Jewish settlement of Migron, Israeli settlers are living out the very drama that derailed the most recent round of peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israreli.

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While both sides blame each other for the talks' collapse, there's no question what was a major stumbling block: Jewish settlements in the West Bank. One settlement, Migron, is very much in the political spotlight right now — though not exactly for the reasons that the talks collapsed.

About 50 Jewish Israeli families – 300 or so people in all – live in Migron, a cluster of mobile homes on a treeless hilltop outside the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Migron is the largest of the so-called illegal outposts scattered throughout the West Bank.

But a Supreme Court decision from August has put the future of Migron in question. The judges ruled Migron was built illegally on private Palestinian land, and they ordered the government to evict the residents and demolish their homes by the end of March.

Migron spokesman Itai Chemo called the demolition order, “the most horrific thing that a country can do to its people.”

In the case of Israeli settlements, illegal doesn’t necessarily mean unsanctioned. Chemo said that is the bitter irony to the situation.

“There’s an electricity poll (in town),” Chemo said. “I cannot bring it on my own. It’s the country that put it over here, the state.”

People have lived at Migron for 10 years, Chemo explained.

“The houses that you see here were brought in by the ministry of housing. The ministry of defense built the roads and all the infrastructure," Chemo said.

Same goes for the water.

But there is another group of people just down the hill from Migron unhappy with the situation as well. They are the residents of the Palestinian village of Burka.

Standing next to an old cemetery filled with stones bearing inscriptions in Arabic, a village native who did not want to give his name asked if the Israelis have a cemetery of their own in the settlement.

"We belong. This is our proof that this land is ours," he said.

He insists Migron should never have been built. The settlers living there should be evicted according to Israel’s rule of law, he added.

“What gives them the right to take the land? ‘God gave us this, God said in the Bible that this is our land.’ What about us?," he said. “It’s apartheid. That’s all it is. We’re looked upon as nothing, we don’t belong here, we’re a nuisance.”

Palestinians seriously doubt Migron will ever be dismantled, despite Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak saying it is out of the question for settlers to remain on private Palestinian land.

There is precedent for demolishing illegal buildings at Migron. It happened last September. Settlers tussled with Israeli police while bulldozers knocked down two houses. It's the kind of scene pro-settler politicians say cannot be repeated, regardless of the Supreme Court decision.

Vice premier Silvan Shalom recently paid a visit to Migron and weighed in on the issue.

“We need to find a noble compromise,” Shalom said.

It appears the Israeli government is going to build the residents of Migron new homes. The new houses will be put up on another West Bank hilltop, about a mile from where they live right now. It is not clear how long this will take, or what will happen to the existing buildings at Migron itself.

Peace Now, an Israeli organization that opposes the settlements, said the deal rewards settlers for breaking the law.

“The deals that they are trying to make are absurd,” said Etai Mizrav of Peace Now. “We already passed the debating part and we’re now in the part when, after so many years that this injustice is taking place, the Supreme Court said that Migron should not be where it is right now.”

The prime minister’s spokesman, Mark Regev said he agrees with that. The law is clear and the Supreme Court has spoken, he said. Migron has to be evacuated by the end of March. But Regev also said finding a compromise with the settlers is about avoiding violence.

“We are seeking a negotiated solution involving a voluntary relocation,” Regev said. “But if that’s not possible. I have to be clear: the Supreme Court’s decision will be implemented.”

That would still leave about 100 illegal West Bank outposts in legal limbo. But the Israeli government is moving to resolve the legal question of the outposts. It has put together a committee of legal experts to look at ways of legalizing the illegal outposts once and for all.