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West Bank Outpost’s Last Stand

In the wake of the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision that Migron, a settlement north of Jerusalem, must be demolished, residents ponder their next step

Daniella Cheslow
April 02, 2012
Aviela Deitch, 39, who moved to Migron this September with her husband and six children. Because Israel's government has always treated Migron as though it were legal, Deitch said there is no reason why it should raze the outpost.(Daniella Cheslow)
Aviela Deitch, 39, who moved to Migron this September with her husband and six children. Because Israel's government has always treated Migron as though it were legal, Deitch said there is no reason why it should raze the outpost.(Daniella Cheslow)

To reach the outpost of Migron, a settlement of some 50 families just north of Jerusalem, visitors drive up a road that the Israeli government paid for. Their cars are inspected by an Israeli soldier posted at the gate before they drive past utility poles funded by the government. And then they pass the wreckage of three homes on the outskirts of Migron that the police razed in September.

Like more than 100 similar outposts, Migron is technically illegal in the eyes of the Israeli government. Since this particular outpost was erected a decade ago, the Israeli government has promised to demolish it. But officials sympathetic to the settlers’ cause in key government bureaus have funneled millions of shekels into making it livable—laying water lines and linking the community to utilities. Anti-occupation groups like Peace Now say Migron and its sister outposts are stealing Palestinian land and forestalling any peace deal. Migron’s residents counter that they are law-abiding citizens caught in a legal mess the government created and that the government must clean up.

The issue came to a head on March 25, when Israel’s Supreme Court announced that the state must dismantle Migron by August 1. This was not the first court decision on the outpost: Last summer, the court ordered the outpost evacuated by the end of March. But at the last minute, the government hammered out an agreement with Migron’s residents that would postpone the eviction date, allowing the settlers to remain for another three years while they prepared to move to a nearby hilltop free of Palestinian land claims. The court refused the delay. Instead, the judges sided with Peace Now, the group that brought the suit on behalf of the Palestinian landowners.

Now all eyes are on Migron, whose fate will set the tone for how the government deals with the dozens of other outposts built in legal ambiguity.

Milwaukee transplant Aviela Deitch, 39, has lived in Migron with her husband and six children, aged 3 to 15, for about six months and was appointed community spokesman as Migron grew in national importance. She said residents had been confident that their offer to move within three years would be accepted by the court. “We’re all in different levels of shock, disappointment, and sadness,” Deitch told me in Migron’s synagogue, a low-slung, plain building where locals have met each night since the court decision to talk about what to do next.

“No Arabs have been able to prove this is their land,” Deitch said. “None of us is taking away where people are actually living or farming.”

This isn’t true, according to Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer, who says the land belongs to Palestinians from the nearby villages of Burqa and Deir Dibwan.

Since then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pledged not to build new settlements in the early 1990s, semi-legal outposts like Migron have mushroomed while the Israeli authorities have turned a blind eye. According to Oppenheimer, court appeals are the only way to force the state to obey its own laws that prohibit land takeover by settlers. The result is long, drawn-out legal battles—the Migron case took six years. And the court rulings read more like neighbors’ land disputes than decisions about the borders of the state.

“It’s not about one house. It’s much bigger than that,” Oppenheimer said. “If you don’t draw a line, the outcome will be that the settlers can build wherever they want.” At stake, he says, is peace itself: “One hundred outposts means 100 new settlements. The meaning of that is no two states for two people.”

In Sunday’s court decision, Justice Miriam Naor, backed by the court’s president, Asher Grunis, noted that Migron’s residents may have “a justified resentment” toward the government because they settled with the state’s blessing only to have the state change its mind. “But the will to consider the distress of the residents of Migron, which we should not take lightly, cannot continue to come at the expense of the petitioners and at the expense of not enforcing the law.”

University of Haifa law professor Emanuel Gross said he was relieved the court upheld its earlier decision to dismantle Migron. “In the long run, you make a mockery of the court if you do not honor your own judgments,” he said. But settlers warn that the ruling could translate into civil war on the ground. They needn’t look far for evidence.

A half-hour’s drive north of Migron is Amona, an outpost of about 40 families built on a hill overlooking the red roofs of Ofra, a settlement of some 3,300 people founded in 1975 and considered legal by the government. In 2006, Amona was the scene of a bitter battle between club-wielding Israeli riot police who faced off against thousands of settlers hurling cinder blocks, stones, and eggs to protest the demolition of nine illegally built homes on the edge of the outpost. More than 200 people were injured. The houses were ultimately demolished; the rest of the outpost—caravans and prefabs—still stands.

Avner Goldshmidt, the spokesman of Amona, last week walked among the ruins of the destroyed homes, today flat concrete platforms surrounded by tangles of steel rebar. He remembered the fight well; he said police broke his glasses in the melee. Residents recently cleared away the piles of housing debris that used to stand as a monument to the destruction. Goldshmidt said this was partly because the wreckage was depressing—and partly because the community intends to rebuild the homes one day.

Israel’s high court has ordered Amona dismantled entirely by December 2012 because it was built on Palestinian land. Goldshmidt said that Amona will not go quietly. “People will fight,” he said. “First, through the courts and politicians—but we won’t leave here peacefully.”

Others in Amona have a less charged response. Revital Halberstedt, 34, moved to Amona six years ago, just after the standoff. Like Goldshmidt, she was raised in the settlements. Halberstedt said she moved to Amona for the close-knit community, the open space for her children, and because she felt a religious calling to secure the biblical heartland for the Jewish people by living there. But she and her husband have a spare house in Ofra just in case, and she would not fight if told to move.

“We are realistic people,” she said. “We are not putting all our eggs in one basket. We need to take care of our family.”

In the village of Burqa down the hill from Migron, engineer Sayel Kanan, 50, said he cannot wait for Migron to be evacuated. Kanan said his drive to work in Ramallah used to be three and a half miles long. Now, because of Migron and other nearby settlements, his route has been reworked and takes three times as long. Kanan also said that activists supporting Migron have torched cars and attacked mosques in Burqa as well. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said none of the residents of Migron have perpetrated the attacks.

Settler advocates say there is still a way around destruction. Lawmakers like Zeev Elkin of Likud have proposed legislation that would allow the state to legalize settlements built on Palestinian land by compensating their owners. Oppenheimer derided his suggestion as blatant land theft sanctioned by bending Israeli law.

Deitch, Migron’s spokesman, said Migron’s residents have not yet decided how to react to the court decision, but she said no one has raised the idea of leaving peacefully without any further negotiations. “Being that this wasn’t just a thieves-in-the night business, we feel a great amount of legitimacy in remaining where we are,” Deitch said.


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Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.