Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that he would not lend his support to the evacuation of the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El, an Israeli settlement in the Benjamin region of Judea and Samaria. Netanyahu's position puts him at odds with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has called for the implementation of a court order to remove several structures in the neighborhood.
After the High Court of Justice rejected the state’s request to postpone the evacuation of Migron -- Israel’s largest illegal outpost in Judea and Samaria -- in March, the focus moved to the Ulpana neighborhood of Beit El.
The neighborhood, whose construction began about 15 years ago, first attracted young couples who received incentives for moving there from the Barak government in 1999. In 2008, the “Yesh Din” movement petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of an Arab resident from a neighboring village. The petition claimed that during Jordanian rule of Judea and Samaria, land in Ulpana, on which five buildings were constructed, was registered under the Arab resident’s name and not under the name of his relative through whom the developer of the neighborhood acquired the land. The residents of the Ulpana neighborhood say that even if they were misled by the Arab seller of the property, they bought the land in good faith, and that a solution other than demolition can be found.
Last year, the State Prosecutor’s Office informed the High Court that, based on a decision by a ministerial committee on the settlement enterprise that a house built on private land should be demolished, the five buildings constructed on private land in Ulpana would be demolished by May 1, 2012.
As the true owners of the land have not yet been determined, ministers and MKs who have recently visited Ulpana argue that the buildings should not be destroyed. Deputy Attorney-General Mike Blass told the ministerial committee on settlements however that he had no intention of defending a government which seeks to prevent the demolition of the neighborhood.
Netanyahu was advised that one way to ensure the preservation of the neighborhood is to enlarge the scope of a military acquisition order in the area which will enable the government to claim ownership of the contested land. The act has not been used in Israel for years, and Netanyahu has said in many international forums he would not resort to it since it would be viewed internationally as usurping Palestinian land.
In an alternative proposal, the government suggested that Beit El appropriate 21 dunams (5 acres) of land within the settlement for public use so that it could build housing units for residents of the five structures slated for evacuation in the Ulpana neighborhood.
A senior defense ministry official said on Sunday that despite the possibility of enlarging the scope of a military acquisition order in the area, the High Court ruling requires the settlers to compromise by evacuating the area under dispute in exchange for being permitted to build a residential neighborhood in a different area. "They won't be able to hold the stick at both ends," the official said.
Barak, whose office is sovereign in the territories east of the Green Line, called for the law to be implemented and for the Ulpana structures to be removed. “It must be understood that a government existing in a democratic nation in the 21st century cannot, on a fundamental and deep basis, function any other way,” Barak told reporters. “At the end of the day we are responsible for the rule of law, we are responsible for Israel being a normative country among advanced nations and we are additionally responsible for somehow finding a solution for the Ulpana neighborhood.”
Officials of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria supported Barak's position on Sunday. At the beginning of this month, Barak ordered a surprise evacuation of Hebron's Beit Hamachpelah, a disputed house in Hebron that settlers claimed was purchased lawfully.
After Beit Hamachpelah was evacuated, Likud ministers went to work to introduce new mechanisms for dealing with housing construction in Judea and Samaria, in an effort to strip Barak of his authority in that realm.
Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, head of the Civil Administration, said in a closed meeting that the Beit El issue is a legal one and not a matter of personal interest of the defense minister's. According to Dangot, Barak is acting responsibly, taking into account a broad spectrum of considerations.
Netanyahu backed Barak on Sunday against attacks from within the ruling Likud party, saying that there is no reason to be angry with Barak. Netanyahu said his and Barak's moves are coordinated, the evacuations are the fulfillments of court orders, and the solution must come from the attorney-general.
Barak said on Sunday that the best solution would be for the buildings to be legalized through proper acquisition of the land, but in the absence of such a solution, the land will have to be evacuated.
Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (New National Religious Party), joined Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon's attacks against Barak on Sunday and threatened to bring the government down if the Ulpana neighborhood is evacuated. "The Ulpana neighborhood will not be evacuated during this government's term. If that happens, we will move up the [parliamentary] elections," Hershkowitz said.
In a show of support for Ulpana neighborhood residents, hundreds of Likud party members from throughout the country gathered in the neighborhood on Sunday for what they called an emergency meeting initiated by the Likud's Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction, headed by Moshe Feiglin.
The gathering was not attended by any government minister, but Deputy Knesset Speaker MK Danny Danon (Likud) said "The responsibility lies with the prime minister, but I will say today that we support the evacuation -- of Barak from the government."