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West Bank outposts trigger tension

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On April 24, the Israeli government retroactively legalized three unauthorized Jewish outposts in the West Bank, touching off a firestorm of international criticism and focusing attention yet again on Israel’s controversial settlement building program in the territories.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokesperson, Mark Regev, blandly downplayed the legalization of Bruchin, Sansana and Rechelim, populated by 188 families, as merely a procedural matter of no real importance.

But Regev’s assessment was hotly disputed.

The secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, called the legalization contrary to Israeli law and Israel’s obligation under the 2003 “road map” peace plan. The foreign minister of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, said that settlements are illegal under international law, pose an obstacle to the attainment of peace and threaten “the viability of a two-state solution.”

The U.S. State Department described the legalization as unhelpful and noted that the United States does not accept “the legitimacy of continued settlement activity.”

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian Authority official, said that Israel’s settlement policy would destroy the two-state solution and what is still left of the peace process. The PA’s observer at the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, claimed that Israel’s aim is to entrench its “massive network of illegal settlements.” He urged the Security Council to address the issue.

Israel’s decision was announced about a month after the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the West Bank outpost of Migron to be dismantled by Aug. 1 and a year after the Israeli government decided that outposts built on state land would be legalized, while those on private Palestinian land would be removed.

The court’s verdict shines a spotlight on Israel’s archipelago of about 100 unauthorized outposts. Israel makes a distinction between these outposts, some of which have been erected on private Palestinian land, and the 121 settlements that have been constructed with the government’s approval since the 1967 Six Day War.

The outposts were established at the instigation of Ariel Sharon, long a champion and enabler of settlements.

In 1998, when he was defence minister in Netanyahu’s first government, he urged Jewish settlers to seize hilltops in the West Bank so as to break up the contiguity of Palestinian-inhabited areas and prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state.

A succession of Israeli prime ministers, including Sharon, promised to dismantle the outposts, which were built by highly ideological settlers without the permission of the government and in violation of Israeli Supreme Court veredicts.

On March 8, 2005, two months after Sharon succumbed to a massive stroke that incapacitated him, the Israeli government released an official report on the outposts written by Talia Sasson, a lawyer in the State’s Attorney office.

The report was explosive in terms of its content and its implications.

Sasson concluded that Israeli state bodies, from the defence to the housing ministry, had been discreetly diverting huge sums of money to the outposts and the settlements.

She charged that the ministry of housing had supplied 400 mobile homes, while the ministry of education and the ministry of energy had respectively paid for nurseries and teachers and hookups to the electricity grid.

Calling the diversions a “blatant violation of the law,” she recommended that “drastic steps” be taken to rectify the situation, such as stripping the ministry of housing of authority over the construction of settlements and transferring that authority to the cabinet.

And in an unmistakable message, Sasson declared that Israel should cease speaking in “two voices” over the issue: “The government must take into its hands responsibility for what is happening in the outposts… and not sit on the sidelines watching as the settlers do whatever they want, without anyone stopping them.”

Less than a week after the publication of the report, the government, led by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, voted by a margin of 18-1 to approve Sasson’s recommendations. The then minister of housing, Isaac Herzog, promised to study the report and implement its recommendations.

Seven years on, however, the report has been virtually forgotten, its recommendations having been all but ignored.

Israel has razed a few unauthorized outposts, including Amona, Mitzpe Avichal and Maoz Esther, but some have been rebuilt by recalcitrant settlers, whose attitude toward the rule of law is nothing less than flippant.

Bitter by the fact that her report has been left to gather dust, Sasson, in a recent interview with the Times of Israel website, accused Netanyahu of destroying Israel’s democratic and Jewish future by undertaking massive and indiscriminate settlement expansion.

She scathingly dismissed Netanyahu’s formal endorsement of Palestinian statehood as “meaningless” and “empty” words.

Facing a severe backlash from cabinet colleagues and pro-settlement movements, Netanyahu said last month, “The principle that has guided me is to strengthen Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.”

Quite true.

Last November, in a move designed to punish the PA for its “unilateral manoeuvre” to join UNESCO, a United Nations agency, Netanyahu announced a new wave of settlement construction in the West Bank and in eastern Jerusalem, both of which are sought by the PA for a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s office disclosed that some 2,000 housing units would be built in Gush Etzion and Ma’aleh Adumim and in eastern Jerusalem’s Har Homa district, noting that these areas would remain in Israel’s hands “under any future peace agreement.”

More recently, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said that settlement construction is an intrinsic component of government policy.

Steinitz disclosed that government assistance to settlements in the West Bank has risen of late, saying that settlers who had submitted to a 10-month partial settlement freeze in 2010 should be compensated. Katz asserted that a Likud government “ought to be encouraging settlement.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a settler himself, went one step further, warning that Netanyahu’s coalition government would unravel should the unauthorized outposts of Migron and Givat Assaf be demolished.

With an early national election looming on the horizon, Netanyahu is scrambling to save the outposts, even if they push Israel into further confrontations with the Palestinians and the international community.

This column appears in the May 10 print issue of The CJN

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