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After the Evacuation: A Test of Israel’s Rule of Law

Our guest blogger is Moran Banai, U.S. editor of the Middle East Bulletin.

Following the surprise Israeli evacuation of a disputed building in Hebron, the next few days will be an important test of how far Israel’s rule of law applies, and whether the Israeli government is willing and able to ensure that extremist settlers do no further harm to Palestinians in the West Bank or their property after a day of rampages.

For the first time in two years, the Israeli government yesterday ordered its police and military to carry out a large-scale evacuation of an illegal outpost in the West Bank in a 20-minute surprise raid. The House of Contention, as it is known by some, is a house in Hebron that has been occupied illegally by settlers since last year. The Israeli High Court ruled that it must be evacuated over two weeks ago and the government had promised to comply and had then attempted to negotiate its evacuation, to no avail.

Talia Sasson, the author of a report on illegal outposts written at the behest of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has argued that outposts are a threat to Israel’s rule of law. Dov Weisglass, a former aide to Sharon, has said that while the Israeli government is committed to freezing settlement growth and evacuating outposts as part of its Road Map obligations, “illegal outposts have been added and construction in existing settlements has not stopped even for a moment.”

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Meanwhile, as the controversy over the Hebron house grew, the fissures within the Israeli settler community became more evident. The extremists who were holding the house and their supporters condemned the more mainstream governing body of the settlers, the Yesha Council, for negotiating with the government. Council members denounced the extremists for undermining their cause. This rift has been growing since the Israeli disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and the evacuation of an outpost in Amona in 2006. The extremist settlers have attempted to kill a prominent peace activist, and adopted a “price tag” policy to make costly every government effort to remove outposts or stop settlement growth. This has prompted a warning from the head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, who suggested that the extremists may eventually bring their violence inside the Green Line.

The evacuation of the House of Contention is an important, if overdue, first step. Israel’s ability to control extremist settlers, which Middle East Bulletin explored in its December 4 edition, will have serious implications for the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.