JERUSALEM — The United States isn't the only country where the highest court in the land is making its voice heard on the thorniest political issues. In Israel, the whole country has been gripped by the fate of five apartment buildings in the West Bank settlement of Beit El. The Israeli Supreme Court ruled last year that these buildings, which were built on privately owned Palestinian land without the owner's permission, must be removed by July 1.
But unlike in the United States, it was far from clear that the Supreme Court's verdict would actually be respected. After all, the powerful settlement lobby is an integral part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition, and it was lobbying the premier to circumvent the ruling. Most settlers agreed to quit the outpost only after securing a deal from the government to build 300 homes on a nearby plot of West Bank land, which is defined as state land.
But this whole episode was little more than a shell game. It kept Israelis' eyes focused on the fast-moving developments of the story: Will the residents accept the government's compromise to relocate them from private land to state land? Will Israeli extremists respond with acts of violence against Palestinians or against the military, as they have in the past? How much will this whole exercise cost us, the taxpayers? Meanwhile, the public lost track of the real story, which is the utter legal, political, and moral bankruptcy of Israel's settlement policy.
For starters, it's important to understand that the whole distinction between private and public land in the West Bank is artificial. To obtain land for settlement construction, Israel manipulated, rewrote, and violated the relevant land laws to illegally declare huge areas of the West Bank as state lands. Almost all these state lands have been transferred to the control of the settlements, which now hold more than 40 percent of the West Bank.
Yet even properly recognized "state lands" in the West Bank do not belong to Israelis. The West Bank is not part of the State of Israel. We're talking about occupied territory, where the Israeli military -- not the Israeli parliament -- makes law. According to international humanitarian law, which governs situations of occupation, the military is obligated to act solely on the basis of two considerations: its own security needs and the welfare of the local population. Any use of state lands, therefore, must advance one of these considerations.
But Israel's settlement policy fails dismally on both counts. No one claims anymore that the settlements advance security -- if anything, they are a security burden for the military. Likewise, no one could claim that settlements advance the welfare of Palestinians. In fact, settlements cause tremendous suffering for Palestinians, affecting all aspects of their daily life.
The settlement project is the primary obstacle to ending the occupation and allowing Palestinians to build flourishing communities of their own. The settlements have resulted in a series of restrictions -- checkpoints and other physical obstacles, restrictions on the roads, and a circuitous route of the separation barrier -- which disrupt Palestinian movement within the West Bank and hinder access to jobs, hospitals, religious sites, and schools. Every day, they deny Palestinians access to land, water, and other natural resources to which they are entitled.
Israel has created two systems of law in the West Bank. Israeli civil law, with all the rights and benefits of a liberal democracy, applies to the residents of the settlements. Palestinians are governed by military law, which does not recognize a whole host of basic rights like freedom of speech and assembly, and maintains a draconian military court system. This is the legal farce that the settlements have created: Two peoples, in some cases literally living side by side, are governed by two very different legal systems based solely on their ethnicity.
In a speech this month, Netanyahu said: "Israel is a democratic country where the law is a fundamental pillar of our lives, and as prime minister I am committed to the rule of law and also to safeguarding the settlements. There is no contradiction between the two."
He is wrong. There is a contradiction between the two, and the government's response to the Supreme Court's judgment -- to further expand and entrench settlements at the expense of Palestinians' rights and welfare -- only highlights the absurdity of Netanyahu's claim.
The price of the Israeli government's plan cannot be calculated solely from the cost of the relocation of the settlers. It is a price that is not only financial, but ethical and legal as well, and it is a price Israeli society can no longer afford to pay.