Israel's aid to illegal settlers

An inquiry revealed official complicity in setting up some 105 unauthorized outposts.

Illegal settler outposts that are consolidating Israel's grip on the West Bank are not pirate operations by hard-line settlers. They are established, maintained, and expanded with the backing of the Israeli government.

That charge, which cuts to the heart of one of the more loaded issues of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is no longer made only by dovish Israelis or Palestinians. It's now the official finding of a report commissioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which was released Wednesday.

The report marks an embarrassment to Mr. Sharon and could intensify American calls for Israel to dismantle outposts in accordance with the international peace blueprint known as the road map. But the document, which does not implicate Sharon personally in illegalities, is not expected to have much of a political impact in Israel even though it was after Sharon became premier in March 2001 that the pace of outpost building greatly accelerated.

"People realize the whole Gaza disengagement depends on Sharon and don't want to put that in jeopardy," says Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Report magazine. "For that reason I don't see a political move by the left, and for the right to try to get Sharon for playing their game would be disingenuous. Legally, he probably has not left any fingerprints."

The 300-page report compiled by former state attorney Talia Sasson finds that the government funds the establishment of "at least part" of the outposts, a term used to describe settlement activity that was never formally endorsed by the cabinet and is therefore illegal according to Israeli law. Israel uses the term settlements to describe the more established communities in the occupied territories, where 240,000 settlers live. These are authorized and in accordance with Israeli law, but contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention by virtually everyone's interpretation except Israel's.

The US-backed road map calls on Israel to "immediately" dismantle outposts erected since March 2001. Few have been removed in practice and in some cases new ones have sprung up. Ms. Sasson said Wednesday that permanent housing and digging to bring in more mobile homes is under way at some outposts, adding that taking over lands and paving roads for them are "daily occurrences."

She estimated the number of outposts at 105, but said there could be more than that.

According to the dovish Peace Now group, 50 outposts were established after March 2001. Peace Now staffer Dror Etkes says the group feels "some kind of vindication" for its longstanding arguments.

But he predicts that the Sasson report will deal a setback to those trying to end settlement construction and achieve a territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

"The risk of this report is that people forget the bigger story, the settlements, of which the outposts are just one small chapter," he says.

The housing ministry, Sasson said, provided hundreds of mobile homes to outposts and channeled millions of dollars to them. Military administrators did not enforce the law and allowed 54 outposts to be constructed on private Palestinian land and other officials ensured that outposts were hooked up to electricity and other services, she wrote.

The Sharon government has said repeatedly that Israel's policy is not to establish new settlements.

In the view of Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, the report "will strengthen the hand of anyone, including President Bush or [new Housing Minister Yitzhak] Herzog who wants to do anything about the outposts." But, he added, Sharon may have a convincing answer if there is increased US pressure, namely that he should not be asked to fight the settlers on two fronts simultaneously.

"I think that what Sharon believes is that to have fiascos of trying to dismantle outposts while getting ready for the huge task of Gaza withdrawal is distracting and will whip up settler anger. He thinks it is better to bide time with the outposts and get out of Gaza first," he says.

Sasson recommended that the attorney general decide whether investigations should be launched against some of those involved in funneling money to the outposts.

Sharon spokesman Raanan Gissin said a tangle of overlapping legal codes in the West Bank - military, civilian, Israeli, and Jordanian - "creates the possibility for those who want to use the law or misuse the law to do so."

Wires were used for this report.

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