JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli Supreme Court on Sunday rejected the state's request to postpone dismantling a large, unsanctioned West Bank settler enclave until late 2015, dealing a serious blow to settler hopes to keep dozens of rogue outposts standing.
The ruling could ignite a violent showdown with settlers, who have vowed in the past not to abandon their hilltop stronghold, Migron. Settler leader Shimon Riklin, one of the enclave's founders, told Israel's Channel 2 TV that the evacuation of Migron "would not pass quietly."
A spokesman for the Palestinians, who claim all of the West Bank as part of a future state, was skeptical that the ruling would be carried out.
The state submitted the delay petition earlier this month, seeking to bypass the high court's earlier order to dismantle the Migron outpost by March 31 because it was built on privately held Palestinian land.
Netanyahu scrambled to find a solution that would satisfy both settlers and the court. Earlier this month, it asked the court to let Migron's settlers stay put until new homes were built for them on a nearby West Bank hilltop by November 2015.
On Sunday, the court ruled that accepting the state's agreement would be tantamount to flouting the rule of law.
"The obligation to fulfill the (earlier) ruling is not a matter of choice," the court said.
Even so, it extended the evacuation deadline to Aug. 1.
In a text message to reporters, Netanyahu said the government "respects the court's rulings and operates according to Israel's laws."
Some hard-line lawmakers said they would promote legislation to skirt the ruling. Earlier attempts to legislate around the Migron evacuation order have foundered.
Ultranationalists began settling Migron more than a decade ago on a wind-swept West Bank hilltop about 15 kilometers (10 miles) north of Jerusalem.
The government says the settlers took over the territory unlawfully in 2001. Settlers claim Arab plaintiffs haven't proven ownership of the land and note that government officials helped them to set up their outpost, even though it wasn't officially sanctioned.
"The residents of Migron received today the harsh court ruling, which is based on the false claim of privately held land, and whose objective is the expulsion of peace-loving people," said Migron spokesman Itai Chemo.
He would not say whether Migron residents would resist a forced evacuation. Settlers believe it is their religious duty to settle this patch of the biblical Land of Israel and have insisted that Jews remain there.
Part of the settlers' deal with the government involved efforts to maintain a continued Israeli presence on the hilltop where Migron stands. It overlooks the main north-south road through the territory.
Jewish settlers began setting up more than 100 outposts without government approval in the 1990s, after Israeli governments pledged not to build new settlements. Israel promised the U.S. more than a decade ago to dismantle two dozen outposts built after 2001, including Migron. But violent clashes with outpost settlers over the destruction of isolated structures, combined with political and legal obstacles, discouraged the government from honoring its pledge.
Attorney Michael Sfard, who represented the Palestinian landowners in court, welcomed the ruling and said he had no problem with the court's agreement to extend the evacuation deadline to Aug. 1.
"I hope that the government and the settlers will not try to pull any tricks and will not try to circumvent this important decision, and that the residents of Migron will evacuate the illegal outpost peacefully," Sfard said, "so that the land will be returned after a decade to its legal owners."
While Israel has given its authorization to more than 120 settlements, outposts like Migron do not have even that level of legitimacy because their construction was not officially sanctioned. Even so, the government has hooked them up to utility grids and has sent soldiers to protect them.
Palestinians do not distinguish between authorized and unauthorized settlements and claim all of the West Bank for their future state, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967. They see all Israeli settlement as illegal encroachment on land they claim for their hoped-for state. The settlement issue has torpedoed efforts to restart peace talks.
Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said the Palestinians would reserve judgment on the ruling.
"We will judge the matter by deeds, rather by than decisions, words or intentions," he said. "Migron is only one of too many Israeli outpost-settlements that are supposed to be evacuated. The Israeli behavior vis-a-vis this, and other outposts, is an example that illustrates Israel's intention to consolidate the occupation, rather than end it," Khatib said.
Israel Radio political analyst Hanan Kristal predicted that evacuating Migron would not topple Netanyahu's ruling coalition, but would make it less stable and tougher to govern.