JERUSALEM -- Some fifty square meters of land filled with baby carriages and playsets have set off an international furor.
With its neatly manicured lawns and seemingly identical-looking homes, Ulpana, named for two religious girls' schools built here, is a block of 14 identical three-story buildings, each with six apartments, on a hill next to the Beit El settlement. It looks like it could be part of just another tranquil suburban development in Long Island, New York. But it's in the West Bank, and it sits smack in the center of a societal debate on the rule of law in this small Mediterranean country and on the issue of Israeli settlement of the land occupied after the 1967 war.
On Wednesday, the Knesset, Israel's parliament, overwhelmingly voted against a bill to retroactively legalize the settlement, by a 69-22 vote in the 120-member assembly. The bill, proposed by right-wing lawmakers, was seen as the latest in a series of political maneuvers to save Ulpana from being evacuated, but also as a direct affront to the rule of law in Israel. The Supreme Court had ruled last month that five buildings in Ulpana had to be demolished, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to fire any members of his government who would defy the court by voting in favor of the legislation.
"This is not an easy day", Netanyahu said in an press conference with reporters on Wednesday after the vote. "The decision to relocate homes is never an easy one, even when only five homes are involved. This is not something the government relishes doing, but the court has rendered its ruling, and we must respect it."
Legal observers said the showdown is a test of the strength of Israel's legal system.
Pitted against the court is a powerful coalition of right-wing Jewish religious settlers, many from Netanyahu's own right-wing Likud party.
"For them, the rule of God is more important than the rule of law", said Moshe Hirsch, a professor of law at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "There are very clear priorities."
Under the bill that just got voted down, a Palestinian landowner would have had to contest Jewish construction on his property, in court, within four years of the start of building, or the completed buildings would not have to be razed.
Critics say it is the latest in a series of both political and legal maneuvers to thwart the high court's decision.
Last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu promised the court he would obey the ruling and demolish the settlement by May 1.
But in late April, his government notified the court it was reconsidering the decision to demolish, pending a review of its policies regarding all West Bank structures built on contested and privately owned land. Last month, the court responded to the state's request tersely, reiterating the decision that the five homes needed to be demolished and that the government should evacuate them by July 1.
The story of the settlement began in 1967, when a handful of religious Jewish families came to live in the former military outpost after Israel won the Six-Day War against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Like most of the settlements in the West Bank, it was on land previously occupied by Jordan from 1947 to 1967 and by British and Ottoman rulers before that. The settlers formed a community known by the biblical name Bet El, which translates from Hebrew as house of God.
Israel has long maintained it has the right to settle the territories, and about 350,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements and outposts, as well as an additional 200,000 in East Jerusalem. Many of the settlers believe it is their religious obligation to settle the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.
But both Palestinians and members of the international community view the settlers' presence in the occupied territories as an obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state and the ability to forge a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In 2004, the United Nations International Court of Justice ruled in an advisory opinion that settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
A Lot Of Legal Complexities
Although Israel officially agreed to halt all settlement construction in 2003 as part of the road map for peace plan, more than 100 unauthorized settlements have sprouted up in the West Bank.
"It's a balagan," said Pnina Sharvit Baruch, a former Army colonel who served as the head of the Israeli Defense Force's International Law Department, using the Yiddish word for "mess" to describe the legal disputes over unauthorized settlements like Ulpana. "There are a lot of legal complexities, and the law wasn't always enforced because of political problems, so there's a culture of not working in accordance with the law."
Ulpana grew from a vow that Netanyahu made in December 1996 during his first term as prime minister. Settler Eta Tzur and her 12-year-old son, Ephraim, were murdered in an ambush shooting not far from their Beit El home. Attending their funeral, Netanyahu stood by the fresh graves and publicly vowed that a new neighborhood would be built in the Tzurs' memory and that it would never, ever be evacuated.
Construction on the homes began in 1999 to accommodate the natural growth of a community that then numbered some 4,000 residents. At the time, the government backed the project, with Israel's Civil Administration in the West Bank issuing permits for construction and enticing young families to purchase the homes with government-backed subsidies.
But in 2008, an Israeli human rights group filed a petition on behalf of Palestinian landowners from the village of Dura al-Kara, arguing that the documents for the purchases of the land were falsified. The group asked the Israeli Supreme Court to demolish the buildings and prevent settlers from moving in, after numerous stop-work orders to halt construction were ignored.
The settlers say the court's decision to demolish their homes is unjust, given the government encouraged them to move into the community.
Settlers From New York
"We purchased these homes in good faith, and then all of the sudden some Palestinian comes along with a piece of paper from the Palestinian authority and says this is mine," said Brad Kitay, 26, who lives in Ulpana with his wife and two young children. He says the showdown over Ulpana is a real estate dispute that has been heavily politicized.
"We're not talking about structures of mortars and bricks; we're talking about families. We're talking about people's lives. They can't be used as pawns in a chess match to serve some other purpose."
The settlers say they're not religious extremists, but that they simply came to the Ulpana, because they just wanted a nice place to live. "I did not have a specific ideological drive to come here," said Alex Traiman, 32, whose house is among those slated for removal. Traiman explained how he moved to Ulpana from New York with his wife eight years ago, because of good schools and job opportunities in the community, its proximity to Jerusalem, and its surrounding natural beauty.
But he said his home has now become an international flashpoint that has being blown way out of proportion.
"To knock down buildings is inflammatory. The obstacles to peace are not these buildings," said the settler.