Netanyahu Ministers Reject Move to Legalize Some Settler Homes

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel seemed headed for a showdown with hard-core Jewish settlers on Wednesday, after his ministers followed his instructions to vote against a draft bill that would have retroactively legalized illegally built settler homes in the West Bank.

The bill was defeated 69 to 22 in the 120-seat Parliament, paving the way for the imminent removal of five apartment buildings housing about 30 families that were built on privately owned Palestinian land in an extension of an existing settlement. Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered the state to demolish the buildings by July 1. In the end, Mr. Netanyahu faced down the more right-wing elements within his government coalition and his own Likud Party, prevailing after intense discussions in the past few days and pledging to build housing for 300 families in the settlement itself, Beit El.

This was Mr. Netanyahu’s first major move on the contentious settlement issue since he expanded his powerby bringing the centrist Kadima Party into his coalition last month, giving his government a mammoth 94-seat majority in Parliament.

Settlement construction has been an acute source of friction for the Israeli government, the Obama administration and other international powers. Rejection of the outpost bill averted entanglement with the Supreme Court and the international condemnation the bill would inevitably have stirred.

Mr. Netanyahu now plans to relocate the five buildings, possibly by slicing them from their foundations through some feat of engineering and moving them to available land elsewhere in Beit El. In a statement broadcast after the vote, he also cited an opinion by Israel’s attorney general stating that the case would in no way serve as a precedent.

Addressing those he called his “brothers and sisters” in the settler movement, Mr. Netanyahu said: “I understand your pain. I share it.” He added, “There is no government that supports, or will support, settlement more than my government.”

But settlers raged. Hundreds converged on Jerusalem on Wednesday to protest in front of the Supreme Court and Parliament. About 50 settlers staged a hunger strike here over the last week, while others arrived after a three-day march from Beit El, about 10 miles north of Jerusalem. Young demonstrators tried to block roads and burned tires.

“This is over much more than five buildings,” Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, a settler umbrella organization, told the protesters as the vote was under way. The government, he said, must choose between two paths: that of “Israeli sovereignty over the land of Israel” or that of “the un-Jewish path of expelling Jews from their homes.”

Hillel Fendel, 54, a veteran resident of Beit El who refused food for four days, said that Mr. Netanyahu’s plan to relocate the buildings was “a very fantastic kind of idea that we don’t believe can be carried out.”

Many of the most committed settlers believe that the West Bank, often referred to in Israel by its biblical name of Judea and Samaria, is part of the Jewish people’s biblical birthright. Mr. Netanyahu described the area on Wednesday as “the land of our patriarchs.” Israel has occupied the area since conquering it from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war.

The protesters were also campaigning on behalf of other settler outposts slated for demolition. The Supreme Court has ordered one of them, Migron, which also sits on private Palestinian land and is home to about 50 families, to be dismantled by Aug. 1.

The five buildings at the heart of the defeated bill are among the 14 three-story buildings at Ulpana Hill, established in 2000 on a rocky incline above the Palestinian village of Dura al Qar.

The settlers argue that they purchased the land lawfully. Ownership is still being fought over in a Jerusalem district court.

Wednesday’s bill had proposed compensating Palestinian owners of land on which outposts had been built, either financially or with alternative territory.

Speaking to reporters in Dura al Qar this week, Harbi Hasan, 71, one of the Palestinian landowners who petitioned the Supreme Court over Ulpana Hill, said that villagers considered it shameful to sell family land and that he found the idea of swapping the land “very strange.”

“When you offer land, whose land are you offering?” he asked. “Somebody else’s land?”

Palestinian officials said they would not engage on Israel’s terms by distinguishing between so-called legal and illegal settlements. While Israel considers the West Bank as disputed territory, the Palestinians and much of the world consider all the settlements a violation of international law.

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