With Migron outpost evacuation, Israeli settlers lose the battle – but not the war

Israeli peace activists are celebrating this week's Supreme Court order to evacuate the Migron outpost, but the settler population continues to expand in the background of such standoffs.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Jewish settlers stand as they talk in the unauthorized West Bank Jewish settlement of Migron, Thursday, Aug. 30.

Israel is on the verge of the its largest settler evacuation in seven years after the Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Migron outpost residents to postpone an order to evacuate land that the government says belongs to Palestinians.

Israeli peace activists are hailing the Sept. 4 eviction deadline as a landmark victory in which the court forced the hand of the government against efforts to unilaterally establish new towns in areas claimed by the Palestinians. But Migron’s 50 families are a fraction of the continuously expanding settler population of more than 300,000, a growth trend that makes a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less and less possible.

"This is one baby step forward," says Sam Bahour, a Ramallah-based businessman who sees the move as an effort by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to curry favor with the US administration. "It's not a change of heart and a not a change of policy, and that’s what is needed."

For Israelis, Migron is the flagship of the dozens of unauthorized outposts established in the 1990s and early 2000s to dramatically expand the footprint of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, flouting a policy upheld by successive Israeli administrations not to give formal cabinet approval to new settlements. However, the Palestinians and most of the international community consider all of Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank as illegal under international law.

Israel has been reluctant to evacuate the outposts, despite a promise to the US and an admission by the state attorney that many sit on Palestinian land. For many, that symbolizes the influence of the settler lobby on Israeli policy and government acquiescence in their goals of making a Palestinian state physically unworkable.

"In the last 45 years, almost everything they manage to set up, they managed to continue and expand… despite government policy," says Hagit Ofran, a settlement monitor for the NGO Peace Now, which challenged Migron in court. "This shows that this cannot go on any longer, and even the settlers, who are so powerful and successful can be stopped."

Migron residents contend that the government, which hooked them up to water and electricity networks while providing security, is a partner in establishing the hilltop outpost. Their assertions that the land was legally purchased from Palestinian owners have so far been rejected by Israeli courts.

The treeless hilltop overlooks Ramallah to the west and Jerusalem to the south. Most of the dwellings are mobile homes, although a small synagogue built from stone and a playground highlight how the residents have tried to make their presence there permanent.

"This place has been here for 13 years. … You see buildings, infrastructure, and a child care center," Itai Harel, a Migron founder, said earlier this year. "It’s a place that’s alive and kicking… residents here see themselves as part of the state."

Israeli television described the residents as "shocked" by the court ruling. The government has prepared a new neighborhood of mobile homes for Migron evacuees on a nearby hilltop.

A statement from Migron's leaders in response to the Supreme Court decision used harsh and confrontational language that suggests a clash next week is likely, despite a vow from residents to resist the eviction nonviolently. 

"Today is a dark day for the State of Israel, a day in which the basic rights of citizens have been trampled.… The government of Israel will not be able to wash its hands of the brutal rape that is being carried out under its open eyes, through its silent approval,'' said the statement. "Today, the Prime Minister has gone down in eternal infamy as a member of a destructive band of preceding prime ministers that chose to raise a hand to the Settlement Enterprise in the Land of Israel.''

Clashes between the military and residents and their supporters could hurt the reputation of Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu within his own Likud Party, which has a growing cadre of settler activists. 

Fearing an unpopular confrontation with settlers, successive Israeli governments have asked the Supreme Court for delays in evacuating Migron, saying it's not the right time to risk domestic political unrest. Last year, the Supreme Court put its foot down and began setting deadlines for evacuation.

"Migron has been the symbol of the outposts, so the issue is important," wrote David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an e-mail. 

"With the Iranian nuclear issue heating up and officials wanting to keep the deeply deadlocked Palestinian issue from being a point of contention at a very delicate time, Netanyahu may find the court ruling to be the political cover and forcing action he needs at this time."

The upside for the prime minister is that he will be able to portray himself to the world and to the Israeli mainstream as strong enough to resist the demands of political allies.

But many believe that settlement expansion is heading toward a tipping point at which Israel will no longer be able to handle evacuating the settlers because it will become too big a job. Settler leader Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council in the West Bank, argued in a commentary published in The New York Times last month that Israel has already passed the point of no-return on the settlements.

Our presence in all of Judea and Samaria [the term frequently used by settlers to describe the West Bank] – not just in the so-called settlement blocs – is an irreversible fact. Trying to stop settlement expansion is futile, and neglecting this fact in diplomatic talks will not change the reality on the ground; it only makes the negotiations more likely to fail.

Given the irreversibility of the huge Israeli civilian presence in Judea and Samaria and continuing Palestinian rejectionism, Western governments must reassess their approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Peace activists won another court battle earlier this summer when the court forced the government to evacuate and dismantle five apartment buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood of the Beit El settlement, but the government promised to build hundreds of new settlement units to compensate the settlers.

"From within the Israeli narrative it is significant, but when you take a step back and you look... the settlement enterprise isn’t slowing," says a Western diplomat based in Jerusalem, noting that the population of the settlements grows at twice the rate of Israeli communities inside Israel's 1967 borders.

Indeed, Yediot Ahronot columnist Nahum Barnea argued that even though evicting Migron is necessary from a legal standpoint, its importance is marginal. The settlers and right wingers goal of preventing a Palestinian state in the West Bank has been realized.

"You could say that the mission has been accomplished," he wrote. "Now all that’‎s left is to fight over the crumbs."

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