The National – 26 April 2010
Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, has indicated he will defy an Israeli court that has ordered the demolition of 18 settler homes in the West Bank, in what is widely seen as a test of the government’s commitment to halting settlement expansion.
The homes are to be found in what Israel terms “outposts” – small, land-hungry settlements it has promised the United States it will dismantle. Unlike the main settlements, which violate international law, the outposts are also illegal under Israeli law.
Mr Barak wrote on April 14 to the Supreme Court, arguing that it would not be “sensitive or humane” to destroy the outpost houses for the time being because they include the homes of the widows of two Israeli soldiers killed in action.
Mr Barak’s officials are reported to be secretly trying to find a way to legalise the two outposts to avoid enforcing the ruling.
His resistance to carrying out the court order appeared to contradict his warning last week that Israel must take steps to end the occupation. “The alienation that is developing with the United States is not good for Israel,” he told Israeli radio.
Critics said Mr Barak’s move had exposed the deep collusion between the settlers and the authorities in establishing 100 outposts in the West Bank since the mid-1990s, when Israel promised under the Oslo accords not to authorise any new settlements.
Although home to only a few thousand settlers, the outposts have been used by the 120 main settlements to dramatically increase their takeover of Palestinian land.
“Israel is hiding behind an official policy of not building new settlements while secretly assisting the settlers in setting up these outposts,” said Hagit Ofran of Peace Now, an Israeli peace group that originally petitioned the Supreme Court to enforce the demolitions.
“Our case has put the government in a dilemma: it says it wants to enforce the rule of law in the occupied territories, but when given the chance it sides instead with law-breaking.”
Mr Barak promised the US administration of Barack Obama in July that he would begin by razing 23 outposts “in a matter of weeks”, though none has been dismantled so far. Under the terms of the “road map”, a US peace plan from 2003, Israel is obligated to destroy dozens of outposts as a first step in peacemaking.
Peace Now petitioned the courts back in 2005 to enforce outstanding demolition orders on 18 permanent homes in Givat Hayovel and Haresha, two outposts north of Ramallah, that were established in the late 1990s. Both outposts were set up by members of the security forces.
The communities, which have more than tripled in size since, have become the main focus of the struggle against the outposts.
In February, after five years of foot-dragging by the authorities over how to implement the order, the Supreme Court imposed a deadline of this Saturday for Mr Barak to issue a timetable for destruction.
Mr Barak, however, wrote to Dorit Beinisch, the court’s president, two weeks ago, urging her to set aside the demolitions on the grounds that they would include the home of Eliraz Peretz, killed in a firefight last month in Gaza.
“The shock and tragedy that have befallen the small community require sensitive and humane handling of the matter of demolishing the homes,” he wrote to the judge. He added that the court should agree to a further six-month postponement of the order.
The liberal Haaretz newspaper has reported that Mr Barak and the defence establishment are seeking a way to legalise the two outposts, in what one of its commentators referred to as “a kind of magic act”. Mr Barak’s officials are said to have been scouring land registry records in hope of showing the outposts are built on “state land”.
In a reversal of the army’s long-standing refusal to take a public stance on the outposts, the chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, promised Peretz’s family last month that he would force the court to overturn the demolition orders on security grounds. He is expected to argue to the court in the next few days that the army’s presence at Hayovel is essential because of its “commanding location” overlooking the Jordan Valley.
Some 35 members of the parliament and several government ministers have also expressed opposition to the demolitions, calling the outposts’ residents “Zionist pioneers”.
They have pointed out that the home of another soldier, Roi Klein, would also be razed. Klein, killed in Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon, is seen as a war hero for jumping on a grenade to protect fellow soldiers.
The suffering of Peretz’s family was widely noted in the Israeli media last Monday, Israel’s memorial day, which honours the soldiers who have fallen in Israel’s wars.
Ms Ofran said Mr Barak was “exploiting the families’ bereavement” as an excuse not to carry out the demolitions. She added that Peace Now had agreed to withdraw its petition in relation to the two soldiers’ homes to prevent that becoming an obstacle to enforcement.
After a tour of the two outposts late last year, Moshe Yaalon, the deputy prime minister, and Eli Yishai, the interior minister, called for all the outposts to be made legal. Mr Yaalon said: “We need to eradicate the term ‘illegal outposts’. These are communities that were established with the state’s encouragement.”
The point was underlined by the settlers themselves when they published a pamphlet highlighting the millions of dollars invested by government ministries in establishing and maintaining the two outposts.
Officials, it was noted, had authorised specially discounted mortgages and grants worth $65,000 for each family. The housing ministry had also spent more than $1 million on infrastructure for up to 100 homes at Hayovel and 10 homes and a hostel at Haresha.