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In a West Bank settlement, Israelis are tearing down a synagogue under court order. Israel's High Court ruled it was built without a permit on property owned by Palestinians. The case dragged on for years, and it was ultimately resolved with a government payout, raising doubts about the High Court's authority. NPR's Emily Harris tells the story.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, the Ayelet Hashahar synagogue in the Givat Ze'ev settlement was packed with young Israeli men. They milled around, eating lunch or studying Scripture. Some chanted and danced as TV cameras recorded a prominent rabbi stopping by for a visit. The young men were prepared to confront Israeli security forces after the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the synagogue to be removed from the private Palestinian land where it was built. Tires were stuffed with paper to ignite quickly. Barbed wire was rolled out on the roof. Amichai Malik, a 20-year-old from a nearby settlement, said bad court rulings should be fought.
AMICHAI MALIK: The fact of the guy have - had a judge doesn't mean anything. And in this case, they're just doing evil things. And the house that should be destroyed is the court.
HARRIS: Fast forward one week. The synagogue is empty and surrounded by a six-foot metal fence. Outside, a police officer sits on duty. A few workers on the roof are taking this building apart at the same time as, one block away, other workers are putting up a new temporary synagogue, already complete enough for prayers amid the construction. Here's what happened. Israeli officials did not want clashes between settlers and Israeli forces. They also expressed concern that angry settlers might take revenge on Palestinians. So the government, led by the Prime Minister, offered the settlers $1.3 million to entice rather than force them out. Elana Dror, a settlement official, was relieved.
ELANA DROR: I was sure it was going to end in violence. And that's why Bibi Netanyahu stepped in - because he realized that if he wouldn't step in, God forbid, there would have been bloodshed or something else.
HARRIS: Still, settlers are angry at the court. Wealthy Israeli backers of the synagogue say, since judges ordered a Jewish prayer site removed, they will fund lawsuits challenging illegally-built mosques. Law professor Barak Medina of Jerusalem's Hebrew University says Israel's High Court has come under increased pressure as the country has shifted right politically.
BARAK MEDINA: We see in recent years this growing criticism of politicians from the right against the court which, of course, has an adverse effect on public confidence in the court. But I must say that it is still only rhetoric.
HARRIS: But it's not just rhetoric, says the Israeli legal organization that represented the Palestinians who own the land where the synagogue was built. Gilad Grossman, a spokesman for the organization Yesh Din, says the government undermined the court by taking years and paying a million dollars to fulfill the court's removal order.
GILAD GROSSMAN: Bottom line - we got what we asked for. The way it happened is very dangerous for democracy.
HARRIS: The Palestinian owners, who have American citizenship, agree. Mohammad Abdellatif says the Israeli High Court brought his family some justice. But he worries the government payment to these settlers could encourage others to build on property owned by Palestinians.
MOHAMMAD ABDELLATIF: They have no justice for giving them this money - for what? If you make like this, every time anyone will come to the other area and told the government, give us some money.
HARRIS: He and his siblings hope to raise olives or grapes on their land once the synagogue is completely gone. If they run into more hurdles, they say, they won't hesitate to return to court. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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