ULPANA, Beit El, Occupied West Bank - The European Union this week continued the international condemnation of Israel's policy of building settlements in largely Palestinian areas. The enclaves are a stumbling block to restarting peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. But in a minor win for Palestinians, an Israeli court has ordered three small West Bank settlements to be demolished after ruling they were illegal.
The houses of Ulpana overlook Beit El, an Israeli settlement of 7,000 people not far from the major Palestinian city of Ramallah. The Israeli High Court has ruled that five of Ulpana's 14 buildings are on land belonging to a Palestinian man. It has ordered Israel's government to demolish them and evict the 30 young families living there.
Palestinians and much of the international community consider all Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to be illegal. But the case regarding Ulpana is much narrower, and the ruling could pose a challenge for Israel's new unity government.
Residents here say they bought the land legally although the sale was never registered. The Israeli administrator for the area, Danny Dayon, says the houses were built with government loans.
“Is demolishing and expelling people from their homes bought with complete sincerity, is that the just solution? No. The just solution in a dispute of that kind, no doubt, is monetary,” Dayon said.
Yesh Din, the Israeli human rights group that backed the Palestinian owner's legal case, says the government is required by law to carry out the court's decision.
“What will happen if the Israeli government is not going to fulfill the High Court decision? I think it will be a tragedy for the Israeli society and the Israeli democracy and for the rule of law in Israel,” said Yesh Din director Haim Erlich.
The residents of Ulpana have been living in uncertainty for months. Filmmaker Alex Traiman, a father of three, is one of them. “We're individuals here that care about Western values. At the same time we want to be an organic part of this region. We want to be at peace with our neighbors, whether those neighbors are Palestinians, whether they're Syrians, Egyptians. At the same time we care about the law,” he said.
Two other outposts are also slated to be removed. Some members of Israel's coalition government want to pass a law legalizing such settlements despite the court rulings. Hebrew University Professor Gideon Rahat says this would be grave.
“This is problematic. The High Court in Israel is very important, the rule of law, democracy. This is a decision that they have to go with, even for the right wing,” Rahat said.
But Palestinians say no matter what Israeli courts do, all settlements are illegal under international law and need to be removed.
"We are asking now to stop all settlements construction," said Palestinian spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah.
That is a direction no Israeli government has been willing to take.