JULY 29, 2015
As Homes in West Bank Settlement Are Demolished, Netanyahu Approves More
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM -- After an Israeli court ruled on Wednesday that two apartment blocks in a West Bank settlement had been built illegally and ordered them demolished, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the immediate construction of 300 more housing units in the same settlement.
The move was meant to appease Mr. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners, as well as Jewish settlers who were enraged by the court order to knock down the two unfinished apartment blocks in Beit El, a religious settlement near the Palestinian city of Ramallah.
Mr. Netanyahu's office also announced that 91 housing units would be put on the market in predominantly Jewish areas of East Jerusalem and that planning would begin for over 400 more.
Israeli settlement activity in the lands captured from Jordan in the 1967 war has been a perennial source of tension between Israel and the Obama administration, which views the settlements as illegitimate. United States officials cite repeated Israeli announcements of new construction as one of the factors in the failure of American-brokered peace talks last year.
The new Israeli government formed in May, dominated by right-wing and religious parties, had been relatively restrained in promoting settlement construction. But Mr. Netanyahu's majority in the Parliament is razor-thin, and he depends on the support of a pro-settlement party, the Jewish Home.
The scene in Beit El has been tense this week as settlers clashed with the police while Israel's Supreme Court decided the fate of the two apartment blocks, which were built without required permits. The government tried to legalize the buildings retroactively, but the court decided Wednesday to uphold a previous ruling mandating their demolition, and the bulldozers moved in to knock them down.
Moshe Yaalon, the defense minister from Mr. Netanyahu's Likud Party, called for calm.
"I expect government ministers and elected representatives to unequivocally back the rule of law and not to encourage violation of the law and confrontation with the security forces," he said.
But a Jewish Home legislator, Motti Yogev, accused the Supreme Court of "charlatanism and injustice" and said the court should "come under the blade of a D-9 bulldozer."
Mr. Netanyahu's announcement of new construction mollified some critics. Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of Jewish Home, told Israel Radio, "Something good came from something bad."
The Israeli government promised three years ago to approve construction of a new neighborhood of 300 housing units in Beit El, to compensate for another Supreme Court order forcing the evacuation of five buildings  in the Ulpana section of the settlement because they were built on private Palestinian land.
The two unfinished apartment blocks that were demolished Wednesday, known as the Dreinoff buildings after the builder, were in a different part of the settlement. But they too were erected illegally on private Palestinian land that was seized for military use in the 1970s, the court found.
The landowner, Abdul al-Rahman Kassem from the Palestinian village of Dura al Qar, near Beit El, said he used to have vineyards and grew tomatoes on the land. He is unlikely to be able to go back to farming it soon.
Mr. Kassem was represented in the case by Yesh Din, an Israeli leftist advocacy group that opposes settlement activity.
Gilad Grossman of Yesh Din said the seizure of land for military purposes was supposed to be temporary.
"This was a necessary court ruling to uphold the rule of law in the West Bank under extreme political pressure, and attempts to change the law as it has been applied since 1979," Mr. Grossman said of Wednesday's decision.
Israel considers the West Bank to be disputed territory and says the fate of the Jewish settlements there will be decided in negotiations. In Washington, a State Department spokesman said that "settlement expansion threatens the two-state solution and calls into question Israel's commitment to a negotiated resolution to the conflict."
Nahum Barnea, a prominent Israeli columnist, wrote on Wednesday in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper that few of the settlers realized that the Supreme Court was their ally.
"In focusing on the legality of a house here, a plot of land there," he wrote, "it is effectively legalizing the entire settlement enterprise."