Violent clashes between Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers reignited at the West Bank settlement of Beit El on Wednesday as bulldozers finally moved in to carry out a longstanding demolition order against half-finished apartment blocks in the outpost.
Around 200 protesters from the settlement — which is illegal under international law — gathered at the site setting tires on fire and throwing rocks at soldiers who attempted to disperse the crowd with water cannons. At least four protesters were arrested.
The area has been tense since Monday night when the Israeli army forcibly cleared settler youths who were occupying the unfinished buildings in bid to stop the bulldozers moving in.
Just hours before today's clashes Israel's High Court sealed the fate of the unfinished structures by rejecting an eleventh-hour appeal aimed at halting the demolition.
The failed petition launched late Tuesday by the developer of the Dreinoff buildings — named after the contractor — sought to overturn previous court rulings that the two apartment blocks, consisting of 24 apartments, had not received planning and construction permits.
Despite court rulings to this effect dating back to 2010 a number of high-ranking Israeli politicians have backed the Beit El settlers' attempts to stop the demolition. Among them is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who during a recent election campaign vowed that Israel would continue building beyond 1967 lines despite opposition from the US.
"We are actively trying to strengthen the settlements, in accordance with the law," Netanyahu said prior to Wednesday's final court ruling. "Our stance on the houses in Beit El is very clear: We oppose the demolition and are taking legal action to prevent this move."
On a Tuesday visit to the settlement, Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who also leads the far-right Jewish Home party, delivered an impassioned speech from the rooftop of a grocery store in Beit El.
"The answer to terror is to build settlements and not be cowards," he told the crowd. "You my brothers are continuing this path. We know the land of Israel is acquired through suffering."
Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group that has supported petitions for the demolition of the Dreinhoff buldings, called Wednesday's ruling a "big success" and applauded the courts for "resisting under intense political pressure." But he said the lack of proper permits was not the only potential legal challenge affecting the construction work under Israeli law.
"This land was privately owned before being seized for military purposes in 1979, so you can't then later build private properties on land that was taken for military use only," Gilad Grossman, spokesperson from Yesh Din, told VICE News.
In response to today's ruling, Netanyahu reaffirmed a previous pledge to build another 300 housing units in the Beit El settlement and announced he would fast track planning permission for 500 new Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem.
Israel's Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also a senior member of Bennett's Jewish Home Party, said the state would have to accept the court's ruling but that the structures should be rebuilt.
"This is the Jewish way, you don't lose hope and you keep building, building, building," she said.
Commenting on the politicians' responses Yesh Din's Grossman said the situation was "embarrassing."
"You can't just have the government and ministers petitioning to change the decision of a court, there's a ruling and that's the ruling, you can't play around with it," he added. "This is a private contractor trying to make money from illegal building and he should be treated as anyone else doing this would be under the law. It's a clear cut case."
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