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Six Day War: Legality of Settlements Debated

An armed Jewish settler walks past mobile homes in the West Bank settlement outpost of Migron.
David Silverman
/
Getty Images
An armed Jewish settler walks past mobile homes in the West Bank settlement outpost of Migron.

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula. For Israel, it was a stunning triumph; for Arabs, a humiliating defeat.

Israel no longer occupies the Sinai or Gaza, but its continued hold over the other territories has stymied efforts to bring comprehensive peace to the Middle East.

The fifth part of a five-part series follows.

Some of the settlements that grew up in the West Bank since 1967 began as small outposts.

Since 1996, Israelis have built more than 100 of these settlements — consisting of a few trailers or tents on a hilltop — that were never officially authorized by the Israeli government. But most of them were constructed with direct help from the state.

One of the newer West Bank outposts, Migron, began in 2002 as a cell phone tower on a hilltop overlooking road 60, a major West Bank artery.

Israeli authorities decided the tower needed security, so the Army posted guards. Soon after, Jewish settlers brought in some 60 trailers, or mobile homes. Israeli ministries built roads and helped provide all the basic services. The outpost has round-the-clock security, courtesy of the Army. Today 180 Israelis call this hilltop home.

"You just feel that it's so right, so natural to be here," says Aviva Winter, a resident of Migron. "You know, post office, phones, the electricity, the water, all the systems, the educational systems ... we have here education, a library, a Gymboree for kids. And everything is by the government and by the regional council that we're part of."

In the late afternoon sun, several children happily push toy wagons and plastic cars on the roadway that snakes around the outpost. One of Winter's neighbors is planting strips of lush, green grass in his front yard.

Winter, her husband Netzer, and their children moved to Migron from Jerusalem in 2003. Winter says she sees herself and fellow settlers as "a natural continuation" of the pioneering tradition of early Zionists. She calls Judea and Samaria, the Biblical name for the West Bank, "the heart of Israel."

Migron is mentioned in the book of Samuel. Winter claims settlers have a Biblical right to this land — something she says all settlers here are reminded of daily when they read the Torah.

"We are reliving it," Winter says. "All the Biblical stories. We're talking about Jacob's dream, Abraham, everyone passed through this area. It really is a dream that's coming true after 2,000 years."

Winter says it's natural that everyone knows they have their own land to which they belong.

"The Arabs have 21 lands where they belong to," she says. "I think that's the way God created the world, every nation has his own right place to live, and if you're not in your right place then there is a lot of problems."

Asked if she thinks the 2.4 million Palestinians currently living in the West Bank are in "the right place," the Tacoma, Wash.,-born Winter claims, erroneously, that most Palestinians were brought into the West Bank during Jordanian rule in the 1950s.

The problem with Migron, according to court papers, is that the outpost was illegally built on land owned by Palestinians in the adjacent villages of Deir Didwan and Burqa.

"Israel claims it respects ownership rights in the West Bank," says Dror Etkes, the Settlement Watch Coordinator for Israel Peace Now, "but Migron was constructed ... fully on registered private Palestinian land."

In February, responding to a lawsuit by Peace Now, the Israeli government conceded that the outpost was unauthorized, that it was built on private land and, the state said, that it should be dismantled.

In 2005, the Israeli-government-created Sahsohn Commission concluded that the state illegally spent more than 4 million Shekels, or about $1 million, of public funds building Migron.

The state has successfully petitioned the court for more time to create an outpost evacuation plan before dismantling the outpost. Etkes called that just another stalling tactic. He said Migron is a prime example of how settlers continue to establish facts on the ground in the West Bank — backed by the government – that, over time, often become larger settlements.

"And what we see here, is, not only has the state not enforced law on Israelis in West Bank, but the state is supporting and subsidizing law violation on a massive scale," Etkes says.

The ongoing legal fight over Migron is likely to become a key test-case for other outposts. Settlers are fighting back hard in the courts because a loss at Migron could make other, more vast Israeli-built areas in the West Bank legally vulnerable, Etkes says.

"They're extremely afraid of Migron," he says. "They understand very well that once a precedent will be done in Migron, there will be dozens and hundreds of sites in the West Bank. And it's not only outposts, but official settlements, which are fully or partially built on private Palestinian land."

According to the government's own Sahsohn report, more than 100 new unauthorized outposts have been built in the West Bank since 1996. The report says most have basic infrastructure provided with direct help from the state.

The first Israeli settlements in the West Bank began cropping up in the fall of 1967 — just a few months after the Six Day war.

Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg said that back then, there were warnings at the highest levels within the government that settlements would be viewed by some as neo-Colonial occupation and could backfire. But parliamentary proponents of settlement consistently won out. The romanticized allure of settlement, Gorenberg says, was hard to stop. It was the way Jews in the late 19th century returned to their homeland before independence.

"It had this log cabin, frontier mystique — or the equivalent on Israeli terms — and people who settled the land were heroes," Gorenberg says. "But it was anachronistic. It was this out of date ideal that, when applied to the post-'67 reality, led Israel into a quagmire."

Today the Israeli government, on the one hand, concedes that Migron and the other outposts like it are illegal and contrary to established government policy. Yet, at the same time, the government has actively supported their development and, so far, has done little to remove them.

"That's a pattern that began in the summer of 1967. It reflects that the conflict between the rational understanding that settlement is destructive for Israel and the emotional, almost mythical romance with settlement has not been resolved," Gorenberg says.

Polls show that a majority of Israelis have increasingly soured on the mystique of settlement, and no longer believe they'll be able to hold on to the majority of West Bank land captured 40 years ago.

Yet, near daily rocket fire from Gaza Strip — from which Israel unilaterally withdrew two summers ago — has made Israelis more fearful than ever of implementing a West Bank pullout. As one analyst here put it, "The incredible irony is that at a time when the majority of Israelis have finally reached a conclusion it's impossible to stay in the West Bank, they're terrified of what the divorce will bring."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.