by Gili Ostfield
Monday, June 4 marked the beginning of a planned two-day march from the West Bank settlement Beit El towards the Knesset in Jerusalem. The protestors are marching against the Israeli High Court of Justice decision that illegally constructed homes in the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El must be demolished by July 1. The five buildings in question, home to about 30 families of settlers, are built on privately owned Palestinian land. Like many settlements in the West Bank, Beit El was originally seized for "military purposes", which Israeli law designates as a temporary appropriation of land without transfer of ownership. By these standards, any land that was privately owned before the military seizure remains so, not to mention the fact that building permanent settlements upon it can not qualify as "military purposes".
Based on these facts, we turn to the dispute around the upcoming demolition. The settlers whose homes are in question are outraged by the loss of their homes. Asserting that they bought their homes in good faith and with government assistance, these settlers believe that it is the government's responsibility to find them a way to keep their homes. Right-wing politicians in the Knesset have taken up this cause, pushing for legislation to circumvent the High Court ruling. Such legislation would dictate that if construction on any land has not been contested by an Arab landowner after four years, Jews may not be evicted off the land. Netanyahu has expressed his opposition to such a bill, citing (rightfully so) the imminent criticism it would receive from the international community. In response to the outrage by those supporting the bill, he proposed a copy-paste method of relocating the homes off of private Palestinian land as well as a promise to build 10 homes for each one moved in Beit El.
Wednesday will show the outcome of this case as the vote is put up in the Knesset. Whether the bill overrides the High Court decision or whether Netanyahu’s plan is put into place, the twofold question remains: What is the future of the existing settlements, and what does this mean for the future of the settling movement? Or more aptly and succinctly, how does such a case bode for a peaceful solution to the conflict?
Those who condemn the occupation are hopeful about what the scheduled demolition could signify, while members of the settler movement are quite concerned. This case may well set a precedent for other Palestinian landowners to file complaints against construction on their land and start a wave of evictions and relinquishments. In theory, this could potentially be a turning point towards ending the occupation and diminishing current hostilities. Israel has the opportunity now to show herself to the world as a state that stands by her laws and values, upholding her own laws for the rights of all rather than trampling them in order to dominate the land.
Before we get too hopeful about such a future, however, we have to consider the power of the settlement movement in the current body politic. It is precisely the idea of such a precedent that has sped this bill to a vote in the Knesset. Moreover, despite Netanyahu’s current opposition to this legislation, he has conceded that he would support it if more cases like that of Ulpana were to arise. In this light, it seems unlikely that the settlement movement will be reversed and equally unlikely that the occupation is approaching its end.
Even with the persistent stalemate of the current situation, the Ulpana case has local and international importance. If nothing else, the High Court decision is a symbol of progress, insomuch as there has been official recognition of Israeli theft of Palestinian land. We can hope that the international community can continue to put pressure on the Israeli government to recognize her illegal occupation, towards the (albeit slow) path towards a peaceful solution. However, Israel must get there internally; it must eventually recognize the consequences of settling on Palestinian land and be ready to back away before peace negotiations can come to pass and have the necessary clout.