At Migron, clinging to contested land, for as long as Israel lets them
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Climax to a settlement saga

At Migron, clinging to contested land, for as long as Israel lets them

The residents of the West Bank’s biggest and most symbolic outpost were supposed to be gone by the end of this month. Will the Supreme Court reverse its own ruling and accept a government compromise?

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Children at play in Migron (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Children at play in Migron (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The graffiti in Migron is from the Mishna. It’s authored by Hillel the Elder and painted in neat, rounded red letters on the metal siding of a caravan. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am ‘I’?”

The quote is 2,000 years old but the message speaks to how the residents of this outpost see themselves today — as pioneers who are willing to take action, without formal and tedious instruction, and as the vanguard of an ideologically lethargic nation.

Migron, named for the Biblical town where King Saul camped before attacking the Philistines, is known in English as an outpost. But the Hebrew word for “outpost” is more evocative — ma’ahaz — from the root “to hold” or “to grip,” and that was precisely the intent of the young settlers who moved the first caravans onto the hilltop during the early days of the al-Aqsa Intifada: to seize land, to embrace it, and in that way to make it a part of Israel.

Migron, the largest and most symbolic of the roughly one hundred outposts, is testing the authority of the Jewish state from all sides

The notion of clinging to land via civilian settlement is nearly as old as political Zionism itself. A glance at the northern border, at the long panhandle of the Galilee, proves that it was the kibbutzim in that area, settled early in the 20th century, that dictated the contours of Israel’s international border with Lebanon. But with the British Mandate long gone, Migron, the largest and most symbolic of the roughly 100 outposts, is testing the authority of the Jewish state from all sides.

The Palestinian land owners appealed to the High Court of Justice on Thursday to ensure that the land registered in their names would return to them, as mandated by the court, no later than March 30, 2012. Peace Now, which originally brought the matter of Migron before the court in June 2006, wants to force the government to take a public stance — either by overtly supporting the settlement that it has covertly sustained for years, or by publicly enforcing the rule of law and evacuating the outpost. And the most strident of the settlers, those who made the bloody evacuation of Amona into a sort of local Masada, would like the residents of Migron, many of whom work in Jerusalem and do not fit the mold of hilltop youth, to take a stand against the government and demonstratively prove that the hilltop settlements are just as permanent as their predecessors in Ofra and Elon Moreh.

.Abed al-Kader Muhammad Moatan (center) and two other Palestinian petitioners to the High Court of Justice on Thursday (Photo credit: Uri Lenz/ Flash 90)
Abed al-Kader Muhammad Moatan (center) and two other Palestinian petitioners to the High Court of Justice on Thursday (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

The government has tried to chart a path between the demands on all sides, navigating around ideals and obligations. Earlier in March the residents of Migron each individually signed an agreement to leave the hilltop by November 2015, moving to an as-yet-unbuilt settlement, perched a few hundred yards further down the slope of the ridge, on a shoulder of the mountain known as The Winery Hilltop.

Yaakov Weinroth, representing the residents of Migron, asked the High Court of Justice Thursday to accept the compromise, saying that just as Migron itself was a symbol of all that is dear to those on the right and on the left, so too is the compromise, because it guarantees a nonviolent withdrawal and it shows that the residents “accept the yoke of this court.”

Michael Sfard argued on behalf of the Palestinian land owners. He said that justice delayed was justice denied, noting that three of the original six petitioners to the court have since died. He charged Weinroth’s clients with “laying a loaded gun on the table” before the court, saying he could only imagine what would happen if he came before the bench and announced that his clients would start an intifada if their demands were not met. And finally Sfard argued that anything less than complete adherence to the March 30, 2012, deadline, an atypically emphatic ruling from the court, “would be a complete capitulation on the part of the executive branch.”

Likud minister Benny Begin, the architect of the compromise, asked permission to speak on behalf of the government. He said that the previous governments “had made a mistake” in establishing Migron on privately-owned Palestinian land and that the residents had acted in good faith, certain that they were fulfilling the “government’s commandments.”

The main actors on all sides of this protracted debate over the fate of a 2,450-foot-high hilltop northeast of Jerusalem were seated in the first few rows of Courtroom C. Although they are neighbors, this is probably the closest they ever come to one another.

Abed al-Mona’im Moatan, one of the Palestinian land owners, sat in the second row, flanked by heavy-shouldered villagers in work clothes and kaffiyas. Moatan wore a vest and a tie and spoke to The Times of Israel on behalf of the rest. One day in 2001, he saw a cellphone antenna and a caravan on land that he says was used for cultivating wheat and chickpeas, harvested by hand. This was not the first time he had seen a caravan on the land. In the past he had called the IDF’s civil administration and they had cleared the caravan away. This time though, the civil administration did not come and the caravan was soon home to an armed guard and then to several more caravans. Finally he saw that the new residents had put up a fence and “when I approached they fired warning shots in the air.”

Horseback riding on the hilltop settlement of Migron (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
Horseback riding on the hilltop settlement of Migron (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

This narrative dovetails with former State Attorney prosecutor Talia Sasson’s account in her 2005 government-sponsored inquiry into the legality of the outposts. The Binyamin brigade commander at the time told her that the residents had set up “a pole in a costume” — a fake cellphone antenna that required a guard and a caravan. Before long the cellphone antenna was real and it required an electrical grid. Then came caravans and phone lines and sewage pipes and roads, all paid for by the various branches of government, even though the state attorney’s office has always maintained that the land is privately owned and the settlement was never authorized by the government.

Itai Harel, a social worker who runs a therapeutic horse ranch in Migron and is one of the original settlers, sat several rows behind the Palestinians in court. After the proceedings, he said “no Arab ever planted so much as a sapling on this land. We have aerial photos from as far back as the Seventies. There was nothing.”

Nor, he claimed, had any of the Palestinians ever proven ownership.

A twisted tale of deeds, maps, signatures and signs

The settlers’ claims to ownership have never been fully aired before a court of law. The Times of Israel’s Matti Friedman has written the authoritative account of the land deal, a twisted tale that rests on what appears to be the forged signature of an Orange County notary on a deed allegedly signed in 2004 by a Palestinian resident of Burqa who died in 1961.

“The only reason [the settlers] tried that kind of scam is because they feel such total impunity,” said Dror Etkes, the former Settlement Watch director for Peace Now. And it was Etkes, more than anyone else, who shoved Migron, despite public apathy and the lack of parliamentary opposition in Knesset, into the spotlight.

Etkes was raised Orthodox, in northern Jerusalem, on the same side of the Green Line as Migron, and, like many of his opponents in the settlement movement, he is ideologically driven and brusque. He believes in action, in field work, in facts on the ground. Speaking of the more diplomacy-minded current head of Peace Now, Yariv Oppenheimer, Etkes said he wasn’t sure “whether he could find Migron” on his own, implying that many of his fellow peaceniks prefer the confines of their urban offices to the unwelcoming hills of the West Bank.

For three years, he patrolled the length and width of the territory, documenting, by car and by plane, what he described as “a frenzy” of settlement activity. “But I had no idea what I was really seeing.”

He lacked two crucial elements: a map of privately-owned Palestinian land registered with the Jordanian authorities before 1967, and the precise geographic borders of the existing settlements.

A recent visit to Migron shows why many of the residents assume that government authorization is just a matter of time. The Israeli government’s roads authority has erected a large sign pointing toward the settlement.

After filing a successful freedom of information request, he loaded the data onto a GIS program. Migron, from which both Jerusalem and Amman are visible on clear days, was coated in the pink of private ownership and cut into organized plots. He contacted several of the owners of the land and they, along with Peace Now, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice in June 2006.

A recent visit, however, shows why many of the residents would be correct in assuming that government authorization was just a matter of time. The Israeli government’s roads authority has erected a large sign pointing toward the settlement. On top of the hill is a red-and-white-striped barrier and a guard booth. Sitting inside is a young female soldier who was enlisted in November 2011. She is part of the search and rescue unit of the Homefront Command, but while training, her unit does guard duty in Migron. Four hours on, four hours off, she said, adjusting the tuning on her civilian radio.

The community has two kindergartens, a synagogue, a ritual bath, two playgrounds with shade covers, Capoeira classes, ballet, horseback riding and a library. “The only thing we’re lacking are babysitters and a community store,” said Elisheva Razbag, who moved in two years ago with her husband and two children.

Razbag, an occupational therapist, said the residents signed the government agreement with broken hearts because they “wanted to avoid a civil war.” She also did not want to expose her family to the trauma of a late-night forced evacuation. But even if they have to leave, she said, “this is only the first shot” in a longer campaign.

Justice Salim Joubran, one of the three judges weighing the state compromise, said Thursday that the court “resides within the people” and therefore, he told one of Migron’s lawyers, “we know that three years are not three years or five years or even seven years.”

Justice Joubran spread his hands out and smiled, looking unconvinced by the attorney’s assurances to the contrary. He and his colleagues are set to issue their ruling on the compromise very shortly.

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