Evacuation of 150 West Bank settlers begins

Israeli settlers carry boxes of belongings from houses at the West Bank settlement of Beit El on Wednesday.

Story highlights

  • Israeli government says settlers will be gone by Sunday from an area in Beit El
  • Israel's Supreme Court ruled last year their homes were built on privately owned Palestinian land
  • Settlers' anger eased when Israel announced plans for new housing in another part of Beit El
  • The Palestinian who owns the land says he's thrilled at the Israeli court's decision

Israeli security officials on Tuesday started the process of evacuating some 150 Jewish residents from their homes at the West Bank settlement of Beit El.

The Israeli government vowed to evacuate the Ulpana neighborhood by July 1 after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled last year that the settlers' houses were built on privately owned Palestinian land.

Fifteen of the neighborhood's 30 families were moved to a nearby temporary neighborhood. The evacuation process is due to be completed by the end of this week, the Israeli Defense Ministry said.

The decision to go ahead with the move was initially met with fierce resistance from the settler movement.

Earlier this month a West Bank mosque was vandalized and partially set on fire. Graffiti sprayed outside the walls of the mosque read "Ulpana War" and "Price Tag."

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"Price tag" is a term frequently used by radical Israeli settlers to denote reprisal attacks against Palestinians in response to moves by the Israeli government to evacuate illegal West Bank outposts, or as retribution for attacks by Palestinians.

Three weeks ago, residents of the settlement set off on a two-day march from the controversial neighborhood to the Israeli Knesset parliamentary building in Jerusalem and called for a bill which would bypass the court's decision and legalize their homes.

In an effort to satisfy the settlement residents, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a plan to build 300 new housing units in a separate area of Beit El. Following negotiations with the Israeli government, the residents eventually agreed to leave their homes without resistance. An additional 550 units are to be built in other settlements in the West Bank.

Harbi Ibrahim Mustafa Hassan, the Palestinian owner of the land, told CNN he was extremely moved by the decision of the Israeli court: "I felt very excited, just like finding a few million dollars on the street. The land for me was almost lost. My lawyers were very faithful and encouraged us to keep going. It took five years to get our land back."

Hassan said he did feel sympathy for the settlers as well. "As a human being I feel sorry for them, but they have done something wrong. You talk about democracy, right? The right of ownership is a principle in democracy, the right of speech is a principle in democracy, and this is my land."

Josh Hantman, a spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Defense, told CNN the deal with the settlers was reached through great effort and numerous coordinations with the leaders of the local community. "We believe that preparation is paying off. It is a delicate, sensitive and complicated relocation process. However the courts have spoken and the Ministry of Defense is committed to upholding the rule of law."

The highly contentious issue of Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem -- land the Palestinians seek for a future state -- is one of the main sticking points preventing the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

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