BEIT EL, West Bank (JTA) — Alex Traiman stands under a tarp in his spacious backyard as his 10-year-old, Tmima, turns cartwheels on the lawn.
"This is our home," Traiman says, pointing to his single-floor apartment filled with books and children’s toys.
"We did not come here to trample on anyone’s rights — we came here to raise our children with values and ethics and to settle the land of Israel."
Through the haze on an unusually cold day in late April, the barren Judean Hills and, farther to the west, the modern office towers of the Palestinian city of Ramallah provide the background for his emotion-filled statements. Traiman, a documentary filmmaker, came to Israel from New York with his family eight years ago, moving to the settlement of Beit El.
His apartment is in the Ulpana neighborhood among a block of terraced rows of 14 identical three-story buildings, each with six apartments. Last year, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that five of the buildings, including the Traimans’, were to be demolished by May 1 because a Palestinian resident of a nearby village owns the land.
The state had specifically told the court that it would obey that ruling. But on April 27, the State Attorney’s Office notified the court that the government is reneging on the decision pending a review of its policies regarding West Bank structures built on contested and privately owned land.
All sides acknowledge that the resolution in Ulpana, however it turns out, will have significant implications for the entire settlement enterprise.
"With all that is happening — nuclear threats from Iran, instability in Egypt, war in Syria, unrest throughout the world — how have these five buildings, housing 30 dedicated, law-abiding families, become such a flashpoint?" Traiman wants to know.
The Ulpana neighborhood grew from a promise that Benjamin Netanyahu made in December 1996, during his first term as prime minister. Attending the funeral of Eta Tzur and her son, Ephraim, murdered in an ambush shooting not far from their Beit El home, Netanyahu stood by the fresh graves in the small communal cemetery and promised the thousands of mourners that in the Tzurs’ memory, a new neighborhood would be built that "would never, ever be evacuated."
Eta Tzur’s widower, Yoel, a real estate developer working with Amana, the settlement movement’s construction and housing company, told JTA that he developed the plans for the area and personally investigated the legality of the land purchase.
"As a developer and investor, of course I wouldn’t build here if the land hadn’t been legally purchased," he said. "Even though this land was promised to us by God, we purchased the land at its full-market value."
Tzur said he cannot reveal the name or other details of the seller because, according to Palestinian law, any Arab who sells land to a Jew will be put to death.
Construction began in the late 1990s with the establishment of two religious high schools for girls. (In Hebrew, a religious high school for girls is known as an ulpana, thus providing the neighborhood with its name.) Construction on the apartment houses began in 2003-04, and the first residents moved into their apartments in early 2009.
Palestinian residents of the nearby village of Dura al-Kara have claimed from the beginning, however, that the land had never been legally sold, and Israeli courts issued their first stop-work order in September 1999. Since then, numerous stop-work and subsequent demolition orders have been issued.
Despite the rulings, a 2005 report prepared by attorney Talia Sasson for then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reveals that the Construction and Housing Ministry provided more than $1 million in funding for the neighborhood’s construction. Moreover, settlers who bought apartments in the buildings each received government incentive grants of some $20,000 and Israeli banks issued them mortgages underwritten by the state.
By August 2008, residents of Dura al-Kara, assisted by the Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din, petitioned the Supreme Court asking that the construction be stopped and the buildings not be populated. During the hearings, the state specifically told the court that the Amana company had known that the ostensible Palestinian "seller" did not have the legal right to sell the land.
The state offered to demolish the buildings and, in the last hearing in October 2011, the court issued its final ruling stating that the buildings must be demolished by May 1, 2012.
A day before that October hearing, Amana filed suit in the Jerusalem District Court demanding that the property ownership issues be clarified. However, in issuing its ruling, the Supreme Court stated that based on the state’s evidence, the buildings should be demolished regardless of the decisions in the District Court.
Beit El Mayor Moshe Rosenbaum insists that the Supreme Court ruling is unjust.
"This is merely a land dispute, and it should be settled just like any land dispute," he said. "And since we have acted in good faith, the buildings should never be demolished. At most, maybe we should compensate the real owners, if it turns out that a fraud was committed."
But Shlomy Zacharia, one of a team of lawyers representing the Palestinians, insists that the settlers’ claims that the issue "is merely a land dispute" are disingenuous.
"They have known all along — even the state has told them — that the land is not theirs," he said. "They are acting out of ideological motivations, and ideological motivations must never serve as a justification for acts that are clearly illegal."
As May 1 approached, the impending demolitions threatened to topple Netanyahu’s coalition. With the scent of elections already wafting in the air, Cabinet ministers and rank-and-file Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud Party began staking out increasingly right-wing positions.
The Cabinet held a series of sessions regarding the removal of buildings in the West Bank built on private Palestinian land and set up a committee, headed by retired Justice Edmund Levy, to investigate the matter in depth. In late April, the government decided to authorize three outposts in the West Bank retroactively, drawing harsh criticism from the international community as well as the opposition in Israel.
In his April 27 letter to the court, the state attorney wrote that "the government is pursuing a new policy, by which decisions regarding structures built on land whose ownership is contested will be made on case-by-case merit … after giving due consideration to the broad social implications the implementation of these policies may have on future construction."
Zacharia says the government "is undoing the rule of law."
"It is reneging on its own promises and defying the ruling of the Supreme Court," he told JTA. "Furthermore, it is ignoring the rights of private ownership, which are not only a cornerstone of democracy but are especially necessary in a situation like this because the Palestinians do not have the political clout to influence the government’s decisions."
Not surprisingly, settlers welcomed the government’s move.
"We are Jewish patriots, and we have come here to live in the spirit of God’s promise to Jacob, that this will be our land,” Rosenbaum said. “We are also law-abiding citizens, and we are convinced that the government will find a way to prevent the demolitions, to prevent such a terrible moral and legal injustice."
The situation remains unclear. As of Tuesday, the Supreme Court had not yet responded to the state’s letter of April 27.
In a separate case involving two other illegal buildings in Beit El, the state asked for a 90-day extension to reconsider its options; the court granted a 60-day extension.
A military source, speaking with JTA on condition of anonymity, said the military is concerned that extremists among the settlers may "interpret the government’s actions and rejection of court-ordered demolitions as a green light for violent resistance. They may also step up the ‘price tag’ attacks," the source said, referring to attacks by settlers against Palestinian property.
Thousands of structures that the government has promised the courts it will demolish are scattered throughout the West Bank, including the settlements of Givat Assaf, slated for demolition by July 1, and Amona, which is to be demolished by the end of the year.
In February 2006, the attempt by security forces to take over nine homes in Amona led to clashes in which more than 200 were hurt, including 80 members of the security forces.
"This is not merely a matter of legalities, or justice or private property or even rule of law,” said Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council of Settlements. “Above all, it’s a matter of whether we should or should not have Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria."