KOKHAV HASHAHAR, West Bank (Reuters) - Israeli police evicted Jewish settlers from a West Bank hilltop on Thursday, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from Washington, where he was urged to take just such action.
Yet soon after paramilitary border police removed some three dozen people, bulldozing seven makeshift cabins, some were back rebuilding what they call Maoz Esther, or Esther’s Stronghold — an “outpost” deemed unlawful even by Israeli courts, which reject international rulings that all settlements are illegal.
U.S. President Barack Obama met Netanyahu on Monday at the White House. Obama wants the newly elected, right-wing prime minister to take concrete steps to revive stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, including a halt to all Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and the removal of the outposts.
Netanyahu, whose coalition took over from its centrist-led predecessor in late March, has been noncommital about settlements and has balked at opening negotiations on the most sensitive issues, including the future status of Jerusalem.
Netanyahu, at a ceremony later on Thursday marking the anniversary of Israel’s capture of Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East War, angered Palestinians by saying the holy city would always be the undivided capital of the Jewish state.
Palestinians want the capital of their future state there.
Netanyahu said: “A united Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Jerusalem was and will always be ours.
“It shall never be divided and disunited again.”
The city, which even Israel’s allies do not recognize as its capital, was divided by a Green Line into Arab East and Jewish West between 1948 and 1967, a result of the war over the establishment of Israel in formerly British-ruled Palestine.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Netanyahu’s comments were a setback to the goal of a two-state solution, which is strongly supported by the new Obama administration.
“Mr. Netanyahu, by saying that, he’s saying the state of conflict will be eternal,” Erekat said.
Half a million Jews live in settlement blocs and smaller outposts built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, all territory captured by Israel 42 years ago in the Six Day War.
The World Court says all are illegal. The United States and European Union agree and regard them as obstacles to peace.
Israeli leaders have pledged for years to remove a least a couple of dozen unauthorized outposts, part of the terms of the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace agreed to in 2003.
Maoz Esther sits about 300 meters (yards) from the government-approved Jewish settlement of Kokhav Hashahar, northeast of the West Bank administrative center of Ramallah.
About three dozen adults and children were in the middle of Bible study when the police arrived. They were allowed to finish and then left as ordered, one evicted resident said. A Reuters journalist saw some of the settlers return after police left.
Yariv Oppenheimer of the Peace Now movement said the evacuation was “just a public relations stunt.”
One day before the homes at Maoz Esther were razed, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Jewish settler leaders that all of the unauthorized outposts had to go. A statement quoted him as saying Israel “cannot compromise over enforcing the law.”
Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said the government wanted the outposts “taken down through a process of dialogue.” He could not say how long the process might take.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman denied the West Bank settlements obstruct a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
“I always hear people trying to portray Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria as an obstacle to peace,” he said, using the Israeli term for the West Bank.
“I ask, what was happening before 1967, when there wasn’t a single Jewish settlement ... but there was no peace either?”
Palestinians say the settlements, and the “security” barrier the Israel army builds around them, mean confiscation of land.
But settlers say Jews have a biblical right to be there.
“We have a great love for the land of Israel,” 29-year-old Avraham Sandak, one of the Maoz Esther settlers, said. “Even if some of our brothers don’t understand, and face great pressure from the Americans and Europeans, that doesn’t bother us.
“The Torah says the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel,” he said. “We will build this again.”
Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Adam Entous and Douglas Hamilton in Jerusalem, writing by Ari Rabinovitch, editing by Alastair Macdonald