Key West Bank settlement outpost slated for evacuation

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RAMALLAH, 1 February 2012 (IRIN) - Israel's High Court of Justice has ordered Israeli settlers in the Migron settlement outpost in the West Bank to leave by 31 March in response to a 2006 petition filed by seven Palestinian landowners and Israeli pressure group Peace Now.

"The prime minister is trying to implement the court's decision peacefully," by reaching an agreement with the Migron settlers which would include moving them from their homes to new housing on adjacent Israeli "state land", Mark Regev, spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told IRIN.

According to the court's ruling of 2 August 2011, the outpost is on privately-owned Palestinian land.

"If there is illegal construction on private land, it has to come down," said Regev. Any agreement the prime minister reaches with the settlers will be put before the court, he added.

There are 18 cases regarding outposts, including Migron, before the high court, according to Peace Now, an Israeli pressure group which campaigns for a politically negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Several have been going on for years.

Peace Now began petitioning the high court to pressure the Israeli government to take action against the "illegal" outposts, which occupy about 1,620 hectares of West Bank land. About 16 of the outposts are on nearly 100 percent Palestinian land and an estimated 22 are on at least 50 percent Palestinian land, according to Peace Now.

"During 2011, the state informed the court of its intention to officially establish 11 new settlements by legalizing `illegal' outposts, which are home to some 2,300 settlers in 680 structures," said Lior Amihai of Peace Now's settlement watch team in Jerusalem. Since the petition was filed there has, however, been little building of outposts on private Palestinian land, said Amihai.

"Settlement" is the term used to denote Israeli civilian communities built in territory conquered by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, now called the West Bank by Palestinians and the international community, and known to Israelis as Judea and Samaria.

Outposts are settlements built without official Israeli government blessing, typically after the mid-1990s. There are about 100 outposts to date, many of which were supported by the Israeli government.

In 2003 the government of Ariel Sharon (in which Netanyahu was a senior minister) adopted the road map peace plan, which required Israel to "immediately dismantle" all outposts established after March 2001, including Migron.

Settlement expansion in the West Bank accelerated in 2011. There were 1,850 new "building starts" for housing units (excluding East Jerusalem), an almost 20 percent increase on 2010, says the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Various initiatives by the Israeli government in 2011 were aimed at "legalizing" unauthorized settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land, reports OCHA.

About 300,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank - out of the West Bank's 2.5 million people - according to UN estimates, while a total of 500,000 settlers live in occupied Palestinian land. Of these, about 4,000-5,000 settlers live in outposts, according to Peace Now.

Humanitarian concerns

The Migron settlers announced this week that talks with Israeli Minister Without Portfolio Benny Begin are under way with the aim of legalizing the outpost. Many community members are motivated by religious beliefs that they are entitled to the land.

About 322 Israeli settlers live in Migron, one of the largest outposts, which has 14 permanent structures and 56 caravans on about 36 hectares east of the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Spokesperson for the Migron community Aviela Deitch told IRIN that when the community was established in 1999 residents were led by the government to believe that they had legal rights to purchase the land.

The community is concerned they will not be relocated in a humane manner, says Deitch, noting the issues - some ongoing - surrounding the 2005 settler withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Three homes in Migron were destroyed by the Israeli authorities on 5-6 September 2011.

"Troops arrived with no forewarning in the middle of the night, without any paperwork, refusing to look at the homeowners' paperwork, and destroyed three family's homes," said spokesperson Deitch. "In one home, where five children aged 2-10 were sleeping, troops wearing face masks and carrying shields burst through the windows, terrifying the children."

Families were given no alternative housing by the government, and many personal belongings from the home were destroyed, said Deitch, estimating the total loss at nearly US$300,000.

Spokesperson for the Israeli Police Micky Rosenfeld told IRIN these decisions are in the court's hands. "They are living there against Israeli law; no one has to tell them in advance to leave," he said.

However, according to the Israeli government-commissioned Sasson Report, millions of shekels of public funds were invested illegally in the outpost, for example, to connect homes to the water and electricity network.

The transfer of settlement blocs in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority (PA) will be essential to any final-status peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, and the creation of a future Palestinian state.

Settler violence. including "price tag" incidents by Israeli settlers continues to affect Palestinians' lives and livelihoods.

The "price tag" strategy emerged during 2008, in which groups of settlers would exact a "price" against Palestinians and their property in response to attempts by the Israeli authorities to dismantle "unauthorized" settlement outposts," reports OCHA.

"We are seeing a general increase in price-tag attacks, and it is the Israeli army's responsibility to protect Palestinian civilians," said Amihai, from Peace Now, warning that attacks will increase if Migron is dismantled.