Israel settlement freeze shields dismantling of illegal outposts

Israel told the Supreme Court that it would be too busy enforcing the new 10-month settlement freeze to enforce a long standing order to dismantle the illegal outposts of ideologically driven settlers.

By , Correspondent

Israel’s settlement freeze is supposed to clamp down on new housing starts in the West Bank, but it’s also shielding illegally built outposts and settler houses from demolition.

The enforcement of an order to evacuate outposts – a step demanded by the US to help restart peace talks with the Palestinians – has been put off for years. Palestinians and Israeli peace groups have been challenging the delay in Israel’s Supreme Court, which requested from Israel a timetable for the demolitions.

The state replied last week that enforcing the 10-month freeze on new settlement building in the West Bank would require so much manpower that it can’t dismantle unauthorized settler outposts right now.

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“The new situation requires postponement of other law enforcement activities,” Israel’s state attorney informed the court regarding a petition to implement evacuation orders against outposts with about 250 people. “The political echelon is conducting a review of the influence on the freeze on previous demolition orders.”

Critics doubt sincerity of freeze
The statement is fueling concern that, despite public clashes with Jewish settlers over the partial freeze, the moratorium will prove to be little more than a public relations mirage.

“The state doesn’t really want to confront the settlers. They aren’t serious about enforcing the law,” says Hagit Ofran, who petitioned Israel’s High Court against six unauthorized outposts on behalf of dovish group Peace Now. “You can get away with the illegal construction. There’s a lot of doubt about the sincerity of enforcing the freeze.”

Netanyahu’s government drew additional fire this week after designating settlements with some 100,000 residents as “preferred” regions for public assistance. The move was dubbed by the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv as “double-talk” on settlement expansion.

That hasn’t reassured settlers and their allies, some 15,000 of whom protested outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence on Wednesday night.

“When Netanyahu is being pressured to freeze the settlements, he has to find a way to ease on the pressure,” says Gideon Doron, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. “For the survival of the Likud as a party, he comes and says, that, ‘While I give you a slap in the face, I’m also giving you some sweets.’ "

Israel counters criticism
Government spokesperson Mark Regev said the government is serious about the freeze and that the settlements tapped for assistance would get subsidies for only social welfare rather than new construction.

But critics of Israel’s settlement policy point out that if the government doesn’t take action against illegal building, the freeze will be rendered meaningless. For years, government officials have spoken of the need to enforce the law in unauthorized outposts, but have never actually made good on the promise in some two dozen settlements where about 2,000 highly ideological settlers live.

Even though the state has cleared several uninhabited outposts, Mr. Regev conceded that, “of course more remains to be done.”

Just the latest excuse
A decision to act against the illegal outposts has potentially grave consequences. It would likely spark worse clashes with settlers and would swiftly escalate political crisis with Netanyahu’s right-wing supporters. The state would also risk a crisis within the army from ideological soldiers who have threatened to refuse orders.

But Ofran says enough is enough.

“They are putting on hold handling of illegal outposts until God knows,” she says. “They have been making excuses every time. Now the excuse is the freeze.”

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Who's moving into the West Bank? Read more here.

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