On the corner of Zussman and Rabin streets in Jerusalem, some 200 yards from the doors of the Supreme Court, groups of young men fill the shallow pockets of shade under the olive trees. Beneath them, on a stone plaza named after Shimon Agranat, the American-born former president of the Supreme Court, many of the older men sit under manufactured shade, in a protest tent, the walls quilted with placards and the air stirred with fans.
Many of them are on hunger strike, and will remain so until the settlement regularization bills are brought before Knesset on Wednesday. But unlike the prime minister, the last matter they want to discuss are the five apartment blocks in the Ulpana neighborhood of the settlement of Beit El; the shape of the settlement movement, they say, is what hangs in the balance.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, navigating through the straits of his ideological base and the dictates of the Supreme Court, has decided to abide by court order and raze the five buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood by July 1. He will transfer the buildings down the slope and on to state land, he said during Sunday’s cabinet meeting, and build 10 new buildings for each destroyed one. Finally, he will continue to seek a legal path around what has been Israeli policy since the landmark Elon Moreh case in 1979: that the government will not sanction Israeli settlement on privately owned land in the West Bank.
This guideline, along with its interpretation within the halls of the State Attorney’s Office, has led to a crisis in the settlement movement – heightened by a spate of unauthorized building before and during the Second Intifada (as a response to then-foreign minister Sharon’s call to “grab the hills”) and a Peace Now policy that focuses less on swaying public opinion and more on maps and legal arguments before the courts.
According to hunger-striking National Union MK Yaakov Katz, 70,000 Israelis live in homes in the West Bank that share the same legal status as the five apartment houses in Beit El. (The figure most widely cited speaks of some 9,000 homes.) Their destruction, Ulpana neighborhood spokesman and resident Harel Cohen said in a statement, “would be equal in magnitude and enormity to the Expulsion from Spain.”
Hanan Hexter, a resident of Givat Asaf, a 25-family outpost deemed to be entirely on private land, produced a sheath of laminated aerial photos. Less prone to hyperbole, he began to present the facts as they are on the ground. He pointed to the Ulpana neighborhood, indicated the spot where Netanyahu suggested relocating the homes, labeled the notion “absurd” and then turned to the heart of the matter: the three communities of Psagot, Ofra and Beit El, the backbone of settlement in the northern West Bank, will all be fundamentally affected by the government’s decision to abide by the court ruling.
A third of Psagot, he said, is situated on private land. In Beit El, there are 300 homes on private land. And in Ofra, “the least legal settlement in all of Judea and Samaria” and to a large extent the intellectual heart of the settlement movement, some 400 of the homes are on land that has the same status as the Ulpana neighborhood.
This is why the 19 hunger-strikers and their supporters feel that Netanyahu’s decision regarding the Ulpana neighborhood is largely inconsequential. Instead they are focused on a legislative initiative that would retroactively legalize the settlers’ claims to the land.
Their banners deem the two bills the “Zionistic, moral and logical” solution. But thus far the prime minister has used his parliamentary muscle to prevent the laws from being voted on in the Knesset.
Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu bureau chief who is currently vying for the top spot in the Jewish Home party, stood alongside a banner featuring the faces of the Likud ministers in government. Beside each minister was a box that said “for” and “against.” Above their mug shots a headline read: “The Regularization Law, The Moment of Truth.”
Bennett feels that the far-left, “which represents maybe two to three percent of the public,” has managed to shackle the government through the “left-dominated” court and legal systems and that since “the Palestinian state paradigm is over” the Israeli government should annex Area C, home to some 350,000 Jews and 45,000 Palestinians.
In the meanwhile, though, he has his sights on Wednesday’s vote, which he predicts will pivot on the decisions of four key Likud ministers: Moshe Ya’alon, Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Katz and Gilad Erdan.
“We’re not looking for their sympathy or their presence here in the tent,” he said. “We’re looking to see their fingers in the air on Wednesday.”