GUSH ETZION , PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Israel on Wednesday hosted a celebration of 50 years of Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights, angering the Palestinians and triggering a row with the supreme court.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government considers the commemoration a state occasion. An estimated 5,000 guests attended the event next to a military base in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, where the leftist Israeli government at the time encouraged the establishment of the first settlement in the occupied West Bank in September 1967. Singers performed and fireworks lit the sky.
Israel demolishes homes of Palestinian attackers
A few settlers from the nearby rogue settlement outpost of Netiv Haavot protested against a court ruling that several buildings there were built on private Palestinian land and must be demolished.
"Today (there are) promises, tomorrow demolitions," read a briefly hoisted banner in Hebrew, an AFP reporter said.
It was not clear if Netanyahu saw the message, but he repeated a previous pledge to settlers that they would not be moved out of their homes.
"There will be no more uprooting of settlements in the land of Israel," he said to applause.
"It's not just a matter of connection to the homeland, but it's first and foremost not the way to make peace."
It was unclear if Netanyahu was suggesting no settlements would be dismantled in any peace deal with the Palestinians, which would raise further doubts over chances of a two-state solution.
Gush Etzion has over the years grown into a large bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem, and officials expect it will be part of Israel under any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
Supreme court president Miriam Naor earlier said that she had turned down an official invitation to send a representative to the festive event, which a court statement said contained the wording "to celebrate the jubilee of the liberation of Judea, Samaria, the Jordan Valley and the Golan Heights".
The biblical term Judea and Samaria is used by the Israeli government to refer to the West Bank, of which the Jordan Valley is also part.
The territories were occupied by the Israeli army in the 1967 Six-Day War, along with Syria's Golan Heights, which were later annexed in a move never recognised by the international community.
"The settler celebrations on our occupied lands are unacceptable and make the atmosphere very tense," Palestinian presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told AFP.
"We ask the American administration to urgently intervene to stop these provocations."
Leftist and centrist politicians stayed away from the event, which Labour MP Eitan Cabel wrote on Facebook is "totally meant to glorify Bibi and his group of extremists who lead us to the abyss," using Netanyahu's nickname.
A few dozen activists from the anti-settlement Peace Now organisation protested at a road junction about two kilometres (1.25 miles) from the celebration.
They held placards reading, "50 years are enough, Peace Now" and "There's no reason to celebrate, settlements ruined Israel."
Chief Justice Naor's decision to keep the court at arm's length drew outrage from the right. But she was quoted in a court statement as saying that she was acting in accordance with established procedure and not taking a stance.
Israelis rally for Palestinian state, end of occupation
"The president reached the conclusion that the event deals with an issue that is the subject of public controversy," it said.
"Therefore, without the president or justices of the supreme court taking a position on the controversy itself, the president decided that it would be appropriate for the judiciary not to participate in the event."
About 430,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank among 2.6 million Palestinians. Tens of thousands of settlers also live in the Israeli-ruled zone of the Golan. The settlements are illegal under international law and seen by a large part of the international community as a main obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.