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Middle East

Netanyahu caught between settlers and Israel's Supreme Court

media An Israeli settler at the Amona outpost in the West Bank, 18 December 2016. Reuters/Baz Ratner

Israel’s government began evicting hardline Jewish settlers from a West Bank outpost on Wednesday, just hours after approving 3,000 new settler homes elsewhere. The situation comes at a time of evolution in the legal basis of settlements.

Some 330 people lived in the symbolic outpost of Amona, the largest in the West Bank.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that it was built illegally on land privately owned by Palestinians and it is to be demolished by 8 February.

Whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest approval of the construction of settler homes on Tuesday evening was designed to coincide with the eviction elicits a range of responses.

“We’re talking about permissions for construction of new housing units in the existing settlements for Jewish villages established quite some time ago,” says Ze'ev Khanin, professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, who sees in both cases the standard application of the law.

“The regular process were stopped due to international diplomatic and political reasons but now the ministry of defence [which administers on behalf of the Israeli government in the West Bank], just issued these permissions, so from this point of view there is nothing new.”

“As for Amona, it’s a juridicial issue as well. Some of the buildings were constructed on territory first believed to be under control of the government, but later it turned out that a group of Palestinian Arabs could demand it as private property. And the Israeli court agreed with that, with an application on their behalf.”

But the overlapping developments also reflect how Netanyahu has sought a balance between respecting Israel’s Supreme Court and appeasing settlers, including nationalists in his coalition government.

Political or legal?

“The government wants to send a signal that, on one hand it does evacuate Amona, but as a prize for the settlers, it gives the possibility to build 3,000 homes in the Occupied Territories,” says Alexandre Kedar, a law professor at the University of Haifa.

“Essentially, I see it as part of the moves the government is doing to alleviate possible criticism from the extreme right,” he continues.” The answer is more political than legal.”

The developments also come as Israeli lawmakers prepare to debate a law that would permanently legalise close to 4,000 settler homes on 54 other outposts, a major shift in the legal basis of settlements in the West Bank.

Two-state solution and Trump

“There are a few cases already decided by the court, so these houses of Jewish settlers will be vacated, but all of the other outposts will likely be legalised and many more houses will be built in the Occupied Territories for Jews,” Kedar says. “I think they are trying everything to bar the possibility of a two-state solution.”

The expansionist policy comes in defiance of the adoption of a United Nations Security Council resolution in December condemning the settlements as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace and a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.

With the new approvals, the Israeli government has given the green light to six thousand new settlement homes since the inauguration of new United States President Donald Trump, who has signalled he is more sympathetic to the settlements than his predecessor Barack Obama.

“The US has a commitment to give Israel a strategic edge over Arab states and Iran, and is closely cooperating with Israel on research to do with defence technology,” says Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University London.

She says the Israeli government adapts its settlement activities with an eye to how the US will react.

“There is a red line and they don’t want to push their luck too far, flying in the face of what the US regards as the international legal position on settlements,” Hollis says.

“Under the Obama administration, the Israelis held back on building new settlement blocks but now that the Obama administration has been replaced by the Trump administration, the Israelis are not hiding the fact that they feel free to go ahead with what they wanted to do before.”

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