JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday outlined a plan to save five houses in a West Bank outpost, despite the government's promise to the Supreme Court that it would remove the structures built illegally on land claimed by private Palestinian owners.
The proposal would relocate the five buildings in the Givat Haulpana outpost several hundred yards into the Beit El settlement, which Israeli considers legal. The plan is the latest government attempt to deal with a controversy that has been both a legal and political challenge for Netanyahu.
The prime minister said Sunday that Israel's policy was to "strengthen settlements while adhering to the law."
While all Israeli settlements in the West Bank are widely viewed internationally as illegal, the debate in Israel is focused on smaller outposts that were built without government permission or on disputed land.
Political hard-liners, including some within Netanyahu's ruling coalition, are pushing a bill to bypass the Supreme Court and legalize outpost houses built on privately owned Palestinian lands, obliging the owners to accept compensation and not demand the structures' demolition.
Previously blocked by the prime minister's intervention, lawmaker Zevulun Orlev intends to offer the bill for a preliminary vote on Wednesday. The houses are scheduled to be removed by the end of the month.
Seeking to avoid such legislation that "has its prices, including in the international arena," Netanyahu presented a new proposal that might let the government comply with the court ruling that the houses need to go but avoid evicting the residents and demolishing the structures. Ten additional houses would be built in Beit El for every one relocated, which would further bolster the settlement.
It could also serve to deter organizations from petitioning Israeli courts to demand that outposts built in the West Bank illegally be removed.
Last month's Supreme Court ruling ended a legal process that started with a petition from Yesh Din- Volunteers for Human Rights, which represented a Palestinian claiming ownership of part of the Givat Haulpana lands.
To avoid both violating the court order and facing controversial legislation, Netanyahu said he seeks the attorney general's approval for his three-part plan to relocate the fated houses, increase additional construction in Beit El and secure protection from such cases in the future.
Settlers from a number of other West Bank outposts facing similar eviction orders demonstrated outside the prime minister's office Sunday morning. Yoel Fattal of Givat Haulpana told Israeli radio that Netanyahu's proposal was "a knife in the back" after promising to find a solution that would allow them to stay in their place.
Lawmakers from both sides of the political map blasted Netanyahu's plan. Minister Daniel Hershkowitz expressed concern this would open the door to a "flood of petitions to the Supreme Court" and coalition chairman Zeev Elkin called it "a grave mistake." Meanwhile Zehava Galon, who heads the small left-wing parliamentary faction of Meretz, slammed the move as "political acrobatics" and added that "any construction in the settlements is another nail in the coffin of the negotiations" with the Palestinians.
Construction of the contested project started in the late 1990s, with government approval and encouragement. Residents say they were not aware the lands in question were privately owned by Palestinians.
— Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, attends a weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday in his office in Jerusalem. Credit: Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images.