A litmus test for the future?

Settlers and Peace Now think Migron battle will determine rule in Judea and Samaria.

Migron 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Migron 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Just north of Jerusalem, my bus stops by a gas station outside of the suburban community of Kochav Ya’acov.
The first bus stop in the West Bank after Jerusalem, this station sees a constant flow of traffic and is often filled with teenagers seeking to hitch a ride home with one of the many cars passing through. To the side is a small access road with an official-looking road sign announcing that down this path lies Migron, the largest of the hilltop villages known to much of the world as the unauthorized outposts.
Banners with political slogans in favor of settlement in Migron flutter in the strong winter winds as those seeking rides huddle into their jackets for warmth.
There is no direct bus service to Migron, but I soon find a ride with a community member, who drops me off just inside the security barrier – guarded by a member of the local civilian rapid-response team and one IDF serviceman. As I get out of the car, the local points to a woman in a long skirt and head scarf and tells me that she is “the American.”
Walking up to her, I introduce myself as a journalist and, upon hearing my American accent and seeing my kippa, she smiles and invites me into her home.
Aviela Dietch, a 20-year veteran immigrant from Wisconsin, begins chatting and explaining about life in the outpost, which is located 14 kilometers from Jerusalem and only minutes away from Ramallah, and which NGO Peace Now describes as “deep in the West Bank.”
It turns out that Dietch, who moved to Migron only a week before security services demolished three local houses in September, is the English-language spokeswoman for the settlement, and when I met her by the gate, she was waiting for a busload of American yeshiva students to arrive. There are many groups of American students, she tells me, especially yeshiva students, who come to Migron to see what it is about this small hilltop that has caused such a political firestorm throughout Israel.
ESTABLISHED IN 1999 on a hilltop near the Palestinian Authority administrative center of Ramallah, and only minutes by steep mountain roads from the settlements of Kochav Ya’acov and Adam, Migron was ordered demolished in 2006 by the Supreme Court. The decision came about as a direct result of litigation by Peace Now, which came forward to represent residents of the nearby Arab village of Deir Dibwan who claimed that the hilltop upon which Migron sits was their private property.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer explains his take on the history of this controversial settlement.
Migron, he says, was established in a “dishonest way.” In the beginning, the settlers “tried to get up to the hill, and they were evacuated by the army, and then they decided that they would put a cellular antenna in order to have better reception [in the area].”
Once the antenna was there, he continues, “they started to move caravans to the site and... it was clear from day one that this is something that has no approval.”
Responding to claims by Migron residents that they had government backing to set up their settlement, Oppenheimer is adamant that “most of the funding that went to the outposts went to the outposts in a very problematic way; usually [by way] of the local municipality, [which] made the decision to invest money there.”
But, he avers, “if they had some kind of official documents from the government saying that this outpost was established by the government and it’s legal, [they should] show it to the public. They don’t have it, because there was never a decision by the government to approve this outpost.”
According to a time line of the settlement’s construction that Peace Now sent to the Post, in 2002 the “state issued demolition orders against all of the buildings in the outpost, declaring that they were built against the law on private Palestinian lands.”
DIETCH, HOWEVER, has a different take on the issue.
“The people who came to Migron did it legally,” she says as we wait for the yeshiva students. “They did it with government coordination and support, [and] even to this day we have inspectors come and inspect the kindergartens to make sure that they are working okay. That’s from the government.”
She also cites the presence of electrical and water services – set up almost immediately upon the settlement’s establishment, she says – as a sign that the community is not just another unauthorized outpost.
“The entire beginning of the community of Migron is listed in government documents.
Residents, on their own, have no way of bringing up cellular antennas, paving roads, or connecting to the electrical grid and telephone and water companies.”
According to Dietch, the community’s founders came with the expectation that the government support they were receiving meant that their presence was considered legitimate.
“When Migron was built, at that time anything that would have been built [required] a process of signatures that you have to get.” Final approval of housing, she explains, only comes after you move into your new building in most towns in Israel, and none of the settlers saw the lack of final approval prior to moving into the outpost as a problem.
“They didn’t think twice,” she says.
The presence of a settlement in this location is also crucial to the country’s security situation, she adds, citing instances of terror attacks prior to the outpost’s establishment, in which Palestinian gunmen fired at cars on nearby Route 60 from Migron’s hilltop.
“In 1999, people came up [here], and the government at the same time was trying to make the bypass roads; it was getting more and more impossible to drive through Ramallah, and [the authorities] thought that since this is the highest point around, it would be smart to have Jews up here.”
At that time the government, she says, was “bringing all the houses you see around you, the kindergartens, the synagogue, you name it, [up to Migron].”
While Peace Now has produced documents that it says prove Palestinian ownership of the land, Dietch states that the land grants, given during Jordan’s occupation of the West Bank, are invalid.
Standing on a rocky outcrop on the edge of the hillside, she points to large boulders thickly dotting the ground under the feet of the yeshiva students clustered around her, straining to hear her voice over the roar of the wind.
“What you see in front of you, these huge boulders, that’s Migron,” she says. “If you go [any place] where there is a nice garden or grass and you dig 2 or 3 centimeters, you get more of that. There was nothing growing here.”
In 1960, she says, King Hussein of Jordan, ruling the West Bank in an occupation unrecognized by the international community, issued land grants, dividing the hill on which Migron sits into 60 plots. He told the residents of the local villages that if they “farm it within three years,” then it would become theirs, she continues.
“Three years went by and nobody touched it. There is no path or any other way of getting here from the villages that are around here. Now we have a road, but that’s something that we put up.”
She also mentions, pointing across the valley separating Migron’s hilltop from Deir Dibwan’s, that the Palestinian village is separated from her community by steep cliffs and that there is no way it would be either practical or possible for the villagers to use her hilltop as farmland.
Since they did not farm the land, she says, it reverted to the crown and, upon Israel’s capture of the West Bank in 1967, these lands were transferred to the Israeli government.
As such, she asserts, the settlers “came up here fair and square. The government created a housing plan for 500 families to live here, but once this Peace Now suit kicked in, we had a problem.”
THE ISSUE of ownership has gone back and forth, with the Supreme Court declaring in 2006, in response to a Peace Now petition, that Migron was “an outpost that was built on private lands” and that as such, “there is no legal possibility to accept its existence... No one, as senior as might be, had the authority to order the construction of the outpost.”
“From day one, the legal issue was pretty clear, because the state issued a statement saying very clearly that this land is private land belonging to the Palestinians in the villages next to the hill,” Oppenheimer says. “This [the court decision] was the policy, and this was the statement of the government. It wasn’t a claim being made by Peace Now.”
However, Dietch disagrees, telling the Post that “when the supposed owners of the land had to state their case in court, they could not prove ownership and were made to pay damages to the state and to Migron. The land in Migron belongs to the Custodian of Absentee Property. The state has legal ownership and the right to do as it wishes. This is the legal definition of this land. [Moreover], if it were really owned by a private person/persons, he would have been able to prove his ownership in court, rather than having been [ordered] to pay damages.”
Last August, the Supreme Court decided that Migron would have to be evacuated before March 2012. Since then, the government, represented by Minister-without- Portfolio Bennie Begin, and the settlers of Migron have debated and parried regarding the possibility of a deal that would relocate their community.
So far, their efforts have fallen short of an agreement.
These negotiations have angered Peace Now and its director.
Sometimes, he says, it looks like “the settlers are really... in control of the government, and not the opposite.”
“The government thinks that it has the ability to return to the Supreme Court and to ask for a postponement of the evacuation or a postponement of the implementation of the decisions.”
Citing the integrity of the legal system and the honor of the court, Oppenheimer states that “it’s not only that we are against this compromise, we also think that this is actually making fun of the Supreme Court decision, because now every decision is not a clear-cut decision and you can change things all the time.”
The entire concept of negotiations with “people who broke the law” and the government’s plan to offer them a new plot of land nearby is “totally outrageous,” he argues. “They are going to get a private new settlement... and will not stay in Israel proper. I think this is madness. The amount of money that this solution is going to cost is also unreasonable.”
An agreement with the settlers will send a “negative message” to Israelis, he believes. “The message is very clear: if you are building an illegal outpost, including on private Palestinian land, the government is not going to evacuate you like it [would] in any other place, but they are going to negotiate with you, and you will actually get something in return, something big.”
His fear, he explains, is that on receiving a new land grant elsewhere, the settlers will not, in the end, be forced to leave Migron, and in effect they will have two settlements.
ONE LOCAL who has been caught up in the middle of this political firestorm is Tami Gutman, whose house was one of the three razed in the middle of the night last September.
Sitting with her children in a caravan renovated for her family following her house’s destruction, Gutman looks through a photo album full of images of her former home.
She tells the Post that she does not know why her house should have been destroyed, given the support that she says the state gave in establishing the outpost.
Later, her husband and I walk past the site of the former house – the building of which Oppenheimer calls “chutzpah.”
“What happened with these three houses is even more chutzpah,” the Peace Now director declares, “because after the discussion in the Supreme Court started, after the Supreme Court ordered the government not to allow any new building until the decision about the outpost was made, the settlers just ignored the Supreme Court, ignored the Civil Administration [of Judea and Samaria], ignored the government and continued to expand the outpost, including the building of these three new permanent houses.
And then [advocacy organization] Yesh Din... said to the government and to the Supreme Court that the order to freeze any building activity in the outpost had been violated, and then the Defense Ministry decided to take down these three houses.”
In response to these claims, Dietch says her position is that “the case against those three houses had been rescinded by Yesh Din, as there were no owners on that parcel of land, and even the paperwork that was handed in on this case was incorrect. There were maps that pointed to an area of land that had no houses on it, and Peace Now, along with the state attorney, decided to destroy houses, even though there was no legal backing.”
Back in the caravan, Tami turns and, almost crying, asks why it was necessary for the state to send armed soldiers to remove her and her children in the middle of the night, with barely any time to remove her possessions.
“There is no justice,” she laments.
However, the issue of justice seems to depend on which side of the issue of settlement one stands. While the government and the residents of Migron debate the future of this outpost, the only agreement between Peace Now and the settlers is that, in the words of Oppenheimer, although “for many people the issue of Migron looks like something minor, [just] another outpost, another hilltop, it is a test case for Israeli society, for the rule of law in the West Bank, and also a test case for the direction of Israel – whether Israel is going in the direction of two states, or whether we are heading toward a one-state solution.”