BEIT EL, West Bank (Reuters) - The clock is ticking for 30 Jewish settler families in the occupied West Bank.
Israel’s Supreme Court has said their homes sit on privately-owned Palestinian land and as an eviction deadline draws near, they say they will not go quietly.
“They will have to drag me out of here,” said Yoel Fattal, 28, who lives with his wife and three young children in one of the five apartment blocs the government must tear down by July 1, on the Ulpana hill in the settlement of Beit El.
Fattal said news of the court ruling hit them “like a bolt of lightning on a clear day”. When he leased the flat five years ago, he had not imagined such a scenario could be possible.
“It hasn’t broken us, but it is very difficult,” he said as his wife sat beside him bouncing their 7-month-old son on her knee. “We are at the frontline of the struggle ... our main fear is that if this goes by easily it will not stop there.”
Fattal can see the Palestinian city of Ramallah from his balcony. A military camp, where Palestinian workmen employed by Israeli authorities are preparing mobile homes as temporary housing for the 30 families, is just down the road.
Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. They say Jewish settlements will deny them contiguous territory. Some 311,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank against 2.5 million Palestinians.
The United Nations deems all settlements in the West Bank to be illegal. Israel disputes this and has sanctioned 120 official settlements, most of them built on land which had no registered owner when it was seized in a 1967 war.
But the anti-settlement group Peace Now says roughly 9,000 homes were built on land listed as owned by Palestinians. The fate of some of those houses is now in the hands of the Supreme Court, which is yet to rule on a number of ongoing cases.
“No one wants a fight,” Fattal’s wife, Yiska, said. “It is difficult for us and it is difficult for them too,” she said, referring to the Israeli policemen or soldiers who may be assigned to carry out the eviction order.
Ulpana is a political headache for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The settlers are a traditional support base for him, but the pending eviction has left them feeling betrayed.
“People definitely feel cheated and he (Netanyahu) probably cannot follow through on all the promises he has made,” Yoel Fattal said. In an effort to appease the settlers, Netanyahu has pledged to build 851 new homes for them in the West Bank, angering Palestinians and drawing international condemnation.
Treading through a political minefield, Netanyahu last week won a parliamentary battle against an attempt to legalize all Israeli settler homes on private Palestinian land.
Talks are ongoing between officials and settler leaders to try and avoid any violence at Ulpana. A contested eviction would be reminiscent of Israel’s removal of 8,000 Jews from Gaza in 2005 — a withdrawal that still stirs great settler resentment.
Outside the Ulpana apartments, settlers have erected a protest camp. A poster on the fence says: “We will not let the destruction of the neighborhood pass quietly,” and calls on Israelis to march against the eviction.
Tyres have been stacked by the road apparently to serve as a barricade should Israeli forces move in to remove the settlers.
Beit El is the scene of several biblical tales. In one, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel and promises to give him the land of his fathers, Isaac and Abraham.
Like many settlers, Brad and Michal Kitay, who bought their Ulpana home more than two years ago, cite such Biblical ties to West Bank land, which Israel calls by its Old Testament name, Judea and Samaria, as the reason for living there.
“Unfortunately we found ourselves in the middle of a big politicization of this issue. It’s difficult on a personal level. It’s a home, it’s not a house. It’s love and it’s memories and it’s family. It’s not just brick walls,” Brad said.
There are no cardboard boxes piling up in their house and they have not begun packing their belongings.
Moshe Rosenbaum, head of the Beit El council, was one of the founders of the settlement 35 years ago. He says some 7,000 people now live there, the vast majority in houses that face no legal challenge. But he is upset that 30 families must move on.
“It is immoral, it makes no sense, it is unjust and inhuman,” Rosenbaum said of the impending eviction. “Everyone is saying this is private Palestinian land. This is a lie,” he said, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling to the contrary.
“The lands were abandoned ... even if it were ever proved to be owned by an Arab, he can be financially compensated,” Rosenbaum said. “Demolishing homes here will rip us apart - not just in Beit El. It will open a rift with hundreds of thousands of (Israelis) who live in Judea and Samaria.”
Palestinians have rejected offers of compensation and say they are eager to regain the Ulpana land.
Rosenbaum is concerned the eviction may get out of hand.
“Of course I’m worried. I know that thousands of people will come here. No one has control over what happens when there are thousands of people here, especially when the atmosphere is heating up,” he said.
Additional reporting by Rinat Harash; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer