Bibi Grows a Backbone

01.14.13 3:30 PM ET

At last, Benjamin Netanyahu has shown he can act with iron will to remove a wildcat settlement in the West Bank within 48 hours of it being established. Without waiting for a precise legal determination of whether it was on state land or private Palestinian property, he took action. Let your doubts about his pluck be assuaged.

True, this wasn't an outpost set up by Israeli settlers to prevent a centimeter of retreat from the Whole Land. This wasn't, say, Amonah, where settlers have been living on Palestinians' property since 1995. Netanyahu's government has shown a curious lack of backbone about confronting the young religious nationalists who grabbed that mountaintop, despite promises to the Supreme Court. Before the court's last deadline ran out on December 31, the state asked for a six-month extension. The court gave it four. Anyone who'd place money on police removing the Amonah-ites by the end of April should give up gambling.

But on Saturday night the prime minister sent police to remove Palestinian activists who'd pitched 25 tents the day before and declared the founding of the village of Bab al-Shams, in the "E-1" area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim. Photos show the activists going limp as cops pulled or carried them away, in the classic style of non-violent protest.

Bab al-Shams was a bid to block Israeli construction in E-1—or at least to draw renewed attention to Netanyahu's decision to build there. An Israeli neighborhood in E-1 would complete a finger of settlement stretching most of the way across the West Bank and block contiguity between Arab East Jerusalem and other Palestinian areas. Its purpose is to make a two-state solution very close to impossible. In response, the Palestinian activists at Bab al-Shams explicitly borrowed the tactic of "creating facts on the ground" from Israel's settlement effort.

The government's first announced reason for removing Bab al-Shams was that it was located on state land. When four Palestinians quickly asked the Supreme Court for an injunction against evacuation, arguing that the land was theirs, the army issued an order declaring a "closed military area" from which the Palestinians were barred for security reasons. With that, the court allowed the evacuation of the people.

"We've also evacuated Jewish outposts… in accordance with the law," Netanyahu said on Army Radio. He didn't mention that his government reluctantly evicts Israeli squatters on Palestinian land only when courts apply a horsewhip, but that it could hardly be reined in as it rushed to remove Palestinians from Palestinian land. It would be comforting to believe he intended the irony.

The founders of Bab al-Shams carefully chose the location based on Israeli Civil Administration land-ownership data acquired by Israeli human rights activist Dror Etkes in seven years of freedom-of-information requests. But for a moment, let's consider the allegation that they pitched their tents on state land.

In the first years after 1967, the government often built settlements on land "temporarily requisitioned" for pressing military purposes. It thereby evaded the 1907 Hague Convention's ban on an occupying power expropriating private land. But in a 1979 ruling, the Supreme Court rejected the claim that the settlement of Elon Moreh served immediate military needs. It was obviously built to serve political goals. Afterward, the government turned to exploiting Ottoman-era law to determine that much of the West Bank was state-owned land. Since then, state land has been the major reserve for building Israel settlements. Never mind that legally, public property in occupied territory should serve the local public, not the occupier.

When Israeli settlers move on to state land without permits, the Civil administration desultorily issues demolition orders and forgets them. When Palestinians allegedly trespass on public property in the West Bank, removing them becomes a pressing national priority.

Then there's the security argument against Bab al-Shams. Replying to the Supreme Court, the government's lawyers wrote that "given the sensitivity of the specific area," leaving the people and tents in place "creates loci for extremely problematic friction." Translated properly, "sensitivity" means "the government is committed to building here, and even our closest allies are really angry." To remove any doubt, the morning after the evacuation Netanyahu declared, "We will not allow anyone to harm the contiguity between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim." As in the Elon Moreh case, "security" is a thin façade for political goals.

The Bab al-Shams organizers might conclude that disciplined non-violent effort failed. That would be a mistake. Netanyahu's response shows that nothing scares him more than non-violent Palestinian protest, consistent with a two-state solution, in a spot already in the international spotlight.

Meanwhile, in Bonn, Brussels, Paris and Washington, policymakers can conclude Netanyahu is absolutely dedicated to the E-1 project. And Israeli voters can learn yet again that the prime minister, little as he likes to talk about it, is running for reelection on a platform of a single state from the river to the sea.