TEL AVIV // For some on the Israeli Left, Israel's court-ordered evacuation of one of the largest Jewish outposts in the occupied West Bank was a victory of the rule of law in territory marked by settlers' decades-long illegal construction.
Indeed, the headline yesterday on the front page of the liberal Haaretz newspaper blasted with little-concealed jubilation: "Migron, the symbol of the illegal outposts, evacuated after six years of legal battles."
However, for some prominent anti-settlement activists, the evacuation was the latest sign of growing right-wing influence over Israeli politics, since the government had to be forced by the court to evict Migron settlers rather than initiate the move itself.
Moreover, the settlement movement was not hurt by the evictions because the Migron settlers were merely shifted to another site in the West Bank.
Dror Etkes, an activist whose efforts in filing a court petition in 2006 against Migron paved the way for Sunday's evacuation, said: "This is no win for the rule of law. The events surrounding the evacuation were a very sharp and unflattering mirror showing the government prefers to yield to settlers' interests rather than impose the law."
Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who relies on settlers for much of his political support, sounded anything but disappointed about the evacuation. "We are committed to respecting the rule of law and we are committed to strengthening the settlement enterprise," he said late on Sunday during an event in the central Israeli city of Lod.
The Israeli government had already conceded in a 2006 reply to a court petition that Migron, located on a hilltop about 15 kilometres north of Jerusalem, was illegally built on Palestinian land and needed to be removed, according to court documents. However, due to government requests, the evacuation was delayed for six years. Last week, the supreme court rejected the latest appeal from settlers against the evacuation and set today as the deadline for their move.
Israel considers illegal about 100 wildcat outposts like Migron that were built on West Bank hills without its authorisation, and views as legitimate another 120 settlements constructed with its consent. The international community views all the outposts and settlements as illegal.
On the ground, the Jewish settlements in the West Bank - territory the Palestinians want for a future state - appear to have been bolstered by the Migron evacuation because two new sites in the West Bank have been prepared for the evicted residents.
Peace Now, an Israeli anti-settlement group, said that the government three years ago agreed with Migron residents to move them into a new neighbourhood of an existing settlement called Adam and had already prepared the infrastructure to house about 200 families.
However, the residents backtracked on the pact and the government agreed instead to build another site for them near Migron, which currently has mobile homes and is intended to have permanent housing soon, said Peace Now. The new Adam neighbourhood, in the meantime, will become available for other settlers, the group said.
Migron was one of about 15 wildcat outposts built entirely on private Palestinian land. Until now, only two much smaller outposts constructed on Palestinian land had been dismantled, the last one in 2004, according to Mr Etkes.
Migron's evacuation, he added, may represent the first time that Palestinian landowners may be able to get their land back because the outpost was isolated from all other Israeli settlements and is therefore now unlikely to be closed off by the Israeli military for security reasons. "Still, this will be a harder and bigger battle to wage," he warned.
In the meantime, Palestinian analysts said they viewed the controversy and legal wrangling surrounding Migron more as a dispute between the Israeli pro-settler Right and anti-settler Centre and Left rather than as an effort to advance the creation of a Palestinian state.
Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, said: "Palestinians view the evacuation as only touching the skin but not invading the blood and veins of the settlements. Israel is still in full control of the West Bank and there is no change in sight."