U.S. to Israel: Leave outposts or relations will be harmed

By Akiva Eldar

Haaretz

Adar1 28, 5765

The U.S. administration has warned Israel that its failure to keep its promise to remove all outposts established in the West Bank since March 2001 will harm relations between the countries and could have an impact on American aid to Israel.

At their last meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Dov Weisglass, the prime minister's advisor, that President Bush expects Jerusalem to take immediate action based on the conclusions and recommendations of attorney Talia Sasson in her report on the outposts.

European Union foreign policy coordinator Javier Solana has told Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that the EU regards the evacuation of the illegal outposts as a vital step toward renewal of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and also warned that any further attempts to postpone the implementation of the promises to remove the outposts could harm Israel-EU relations.

The report, submitted last night to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, essentially confirms longstanding complaints by Palestinians and activist groups like Peace Now that successive Israeli governments, including after the Oslo Accords, approved and financed for decades the establishment of outpost settlements on privately owned Palestinian lead.

In many other cases, says the report, the Defense Ministry, attorney general, and the IDF's Civil Administration ignored settler incursions onto property they did not own - backed by ministers and senior officials - to establish new settlements outside zoned areas in direct violation of government decisions and regulations and to exploit the sensitive security situation.

President Bush had in the past acceded to Sharon's request to postpone the dismantling of the outposts until a complete legal examination of the matter had been conducted. That would have enabled the government to defend the dismantling when petitions against it were brought to the High Court of Justice.

Sasson concluded that there is no need for a new law to enable the evacuation and dismantling of the outposts. This contradicts claims by settlers and their Knesset supporters that new legislation is required for the government to order the outposts removed and for the army and police to execute the decision.

Sasson also recommends stiffening punishments meted out to officials and others involved in violations of the law regarding construction in the territories, including jail sentences and steep fines. Her report says that the government's failure to dismantle the outposts sends a message to settlers, soldiers, police and the public in general that there is no real intention to evacuate illegal outposts, and that the political echelon "speaks in two voices."

The Palestinian Authority is planning to make the issue of the outposts a top priority during the upcoming visit to Washington by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas for meetings with President Bush.

A senior official source who has long tracked the issue of construction in the territories said last night that the Hapoalim Bank money laundering case pales in comparison to the way taxpayer money was laundered to put up outposts.

He said the Sasson report exposes an "organized criminal conspiracy" in which the illegal outposts were established with taxpayer money that was never earmarked for that construction, with ministers, directors general, senior officials and officers of the army all involved. The source said that the attorney general could use the Sasson report as the basis for criminal investigations against a host of officials past and present.

The systematic breaking of the law was known to successive attorneys general, and a number of complaints had been made in the past to the police about suspected criminal activity. Just last week, the IDF officer at the Civil Administration in charge of infrastructure, Lt. Col. Yair Blumenthal, was arrested for suspected involvement in a scheme to forge documents for the purpose of taking over Palestinian land in the territories.

Although the state comptroller has revealed in the past suspicions about lawbreaking by government officials, no attorney general ordered an investigation against officials such as then-housing minister Sharon and a number of "settlement advisors" to defense ministers.

In May 1997, then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein drafted an opinion stating that the Har Hemed settlement in the northern West Bank was illegal. In November 1998, the Interior Ministry allocated NIS 250,000 to "a new neighborhood for Har Hemed." The Housing Ministry allocated NIS 150,000, and the World Zionist Organization allocated NIS 125,000.

In May of the same year, Rubinstein had written to the Central Command's top officer that "the rule of law is being trampled upon and scorned." He demanded immediate steps be taken to evict settlers who had trespassed onto Palestinian lands, saying that the trespassers could be evicted by force if the trespass was "fresh," but that delays would enable the trespassers to claim they were immune to such evictions.

In June 2003, Rubinstein sent a circular to government ministries demanding they cease transferring funds for illegal construction activity in the territories.

In the summer of 1999, Col. Shlomo Politus, the legal advisor of the Civil Administration, wrote that the matter of mobile homes being stationed in unauthorized sites - the first stage in the establishment of an outpost - "creates the impression that the right hand of the authorities in the region does not know what the left hand is doing."

Politus said that in some cases, settlers surprised administration officials who arrived with eviction orders by showing the officers letters signed by the head of infrastructure - Blumenthal - and that dozens of mobile homes were stationed in the territories on the basis of approval by the general of the command, without anything being done to enforce the law.

The Sasson report also confirms the findings of the State Comptroller in his 2003 report, in which the defense minister and his advisor on settlements are said to have either actively or passively enabled the transfer of mobile homes to new outpost sites.

Sasson also confirms the comptroller's findings that funds sent to settlements for security, road paving, electricity and water, lighting and other infrastructure needs went to illegal outposts.