JERUSALEM -- The thought of having Jewish settler homes demolished on his watch has propelled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to promise a radical – some say ludicrous – way to sidestep a Supreme Court order to raze 30 apartments built illegally in the West Bank.
After it evacuates settlers from five apartment buildings in the Ulpana outpost this week, the government has promised to slice the structures from their foundations and move them to a West Bank site nearby, where they will be reassembled.
Construction specialists say transplanting the buildings – three-story concrete structures faced with stone and topped with red tile roofs – would squander huge sums of money and be infinitely more complicated than destroying and rebuilding them.
Netanyahu came up with the plan after the government was ordered to dismantle the outpost. People close to the prime minister say he believes that preserving the homes will ease the pain for the families.
The Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government earlier this year to destroy Ulpana after determining it was built on privately owned Palestinian land.
"By the first of July, the plan is to have the buildings vacated and sealed," a government official said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity about a project whose details have not been finalized. "The prime minister said he wanted these buildings relocated, not destroyed."
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of a future state. The Palestinians, along with virtually all of the international community, consider all Israeli settlements to be illegal or illegitimate.
In Israel, any talk of uprooting settlements, now home to more than 500,000 Israelis, is contentious. The government divides the settlements into two categories – those it authorized and those it did not. There are more than 100 authorized settlements and another 100 or so unauthorized outposts, some little more than a few trailers on a hilltop and others, like Ulpana, made up of concrete apartment houses.
Most settlers do not make that distinction, opposing demolition of any Israeli structure in the West Bank.
The unusual Ulpana arrangement is an attempt by the pro-settler Netanyahu to avert the prospect of destroying a settlement and battling its residents, who started packing their belongings and moving out of the buildings on Tuesday.
Transplanting the buildings would solve that problem, but at a staggering cost, experts say.
Specialists familiar with this type of operation say it would require slicing the buildings with huge circular blades, chopping them into smaller pieces, transferring them by crane to massive flatbed trucks and hauling them to their new location, where they would be reassembled like a puzzle. The sawing alone would take a week for each building and cost $125,000 for apiece for the five structures, said one of the specialists, speaking on condition of anonymity because final plans for the project have not yet been set.
That expense would just be the starter.
"Sawing is not the problem. The problem is how to put them together again," because the slicing would cut through electrical wires, plumbing, structural rods and other parts of the apartment, forcing a large-scale reconstruction, said Israel David, vice chairman of the Israeli Association of Construction and Infrastructure Engineers.
"It's absurd," he said, estimating that total costs could go as high as $25 million to relocate 30 apartments that could be rebuilt for $150,000 apiece.
The technique has been used in Israel before. In 2005, Israel moved five historic homes in the center of Tel Aviv to widen a road.
Shay Tzadik, a 20-year veteran of the sawing business, said he appreciates the sentiment behind what Netanyahu is trying to do, but thinks it's beside the point.
"If it was an archaeological site, it would be worth the investment," Tzadik said. "But why do it?"
Blake Sobczak contributed reporting from Ulpana.