Analysis: How to legalize an outpost

Settler leadership reframes outpost semantics into winning formula.

illegal outpost 88 (photo credit: )
illegal outpost 88
(photo credit: )
Without staging a rally or burning a tire, the settler leadership this week appeared to rescue the 101 West Bank outposts from certain destruction. In what has been a two-year process, the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip showed that it had reframed the semantics surrounding the outposts into a winning formula. So now, instead of asking, "When will the outposts be evacuated?" the question has become, "Where in the West Bank can the government 'legally' place 101 small fledgling communities that comprise some 7,000 people?" To do this, the council has shifted the language from "evacuation," with all the implied visions of IDF soldiers forcibly pulling kicking families away from their homes, to a "voluntary removal," to "moving" the outposts, and finally to "legalized construction." The council's successful ability to do this can be seen in the agreement it reached this week with the Defense Ministry regarding Migron, one of the largest of the West Bank outposts. This deal, which the state submitted to the High Court of Justice on Thursday, has the potential for being the watershed moment in the history of the outpost movement. It was given to the court in response to a petition by Peace Now demanding an evacuation. But instead, the state responded by explaining that it would now find a "legal" alternative for the outpost in the West Bank. In short, within a few years, 45 families living on the Migron hilltop outside of Jerusalem will have exchanged their long rectangular "caravans" for new legal stone homes in a West Bank area that is close to their present one. While the agreement speaks only of Migron, it can be viewed as a prototype of what could happen with the remaining outposts. It is likely that in those deals in which the government speaks of "voluntary evacuation" and the council of "legalized construction," what all this will boil down to is more settlement building. It is true that the council has not swayed the government to authorize 101 new settlements, as they would have liked - but that, as the council would say, is an issue of semantics, given that they have created a blueprint by which to legalize additional development in the West Bank. In some cases, this is likely to mean moving families in small outposts into nearby settlements, probably in exchange for building permits, as happened in Mevo Horon earlier this year. In other, larger cases like Migron, it is likely to mean moving the families as an autonomous community into the boundaries of an already existing settlement. This is not good news for everyone. For the extreme Right, which believes Israel's survival ability is weakened when Jews leave an inch of territory in the West Bank, this is a loss. But that is true for the Left as well. The Left had hoped that when the government spoke of removing outposts, it literally meant taking down the homes and making it difficult for the families to relocate in the West Bank. It views a situation in which an outpost gets to exchange an illegal caravan for a legal home anywhere in the West Bank as the equivalent of rewarding the settlers for breaking the law. But the outpost issue, in some ways, crystallizes the somewhat schizophrenic settlement policy the government continues to hold onto in the West Bank. Much like with the security barrier, when it comes to construction in the West Bank, the government makes an assumption on what the country's final borders will be, even though it has not declared them unilaterally. As such, the government sees no reason it cannot build within areas that it believes it would retain in a final-status agreement. It has rejectred charges from the Palestinians and the international community that such construction harms the peace process. Its insistence that limited construction is allowable was evident in the text of the state's response to the High Court of Justice, in which it said its arrangement with the settlers regarding the outpost would be in accordance with its international agreements. But for the Defense Ministry, what is most important here is not the international arena, but the internal problem the outposts pose. For the ministry, the issue of the outposts is not about American or Palestinian opinion, but is a test of the rule of law within Judea and Samaria. Driven to uphold this law and daunted by the fear of further violent incidents like Amona, it has been open to the council's drive to "legalize" the outposts by moving them to acceptable development areas, rather than erasing them from the map altogether. The council, in turn, after watching the army reduce more than 25 years of development in Gaza to rubble, has learned the importance of standing with the government rather than opposing it. Instead of racing to capture every West Bank hilltop, since the disengagement, the council has looked to expand and cement its current holdings. In the process, it has finally learned how to harness the prevailing government ideology to its own advantage. It's not a new tactic for the settler movement. One has only to remember that in 1974, in the Sebastia agreement, the settlement movement gained much when it stopped protesting evacuation and instead worked out a deal to move 25 families from the ruins of a train station to an army camp nearby. It's an agreement that is often credited with opening the door for the legal development of Judea and Samaria. This deal could have a similar impact. On Independence Day, council head Dani Dayan stood in Migron and promised that it would stay there forever. As he has now noted, if the new legal homes are built just 300 meters down the road, hasn't he, at the end of the day, kept his promise? But now that the council has worked out the basics of what could become a larger deal for the 101 outposts, its next challenge is swaying the right-wing activists, as well as the settlers' rabbinical council and the Migron families themselves, that this deal is a victory - no small task, given the stiff opposition these groups have verbalized. Part of the council's argument could be that the process of moving would take time and that the government could change in the interim, while an evacuation could happen immediately. In a prelude to that wider debate, the council now has the 30 days it needs to convince both the Migron families and the Binyamin Regional Council that the war for Judea and Samaria is not lost if the 45 families move a short distance down the road. Their problem is that sometimes, when you win the war without firing a shot, the victory goes unnoticed even by the soldiers in the field.