Dozens of buildings erected in outposts in last three months

By Amos Harel and Nir Hasson

Haaretz

Iyar 29, 5765

Not a thing has changed in the government's handling of illegal settlement outposts in the three months since a comprehensive report on the issue was completed, the report's author, attorney Talia Sasson, said Sunday.

Speaking at a seminar on the settlements organized by Ben-Gurion University, Sasson said that building in the West Bank outposts was continuing just as before. "Since the report was submitted, nothing has happened," she said. "It was well publicized, and that's good, but everything is continuing. Perhaps the Housing Ministry has closed a few taps, but there has been no operative decision and construction continues in the outposts."

"The goal of the report was to end the illegal construction," the former government attorney added. "This is not a matter of political outlook; we are talking about the state violating its own laws, and when a state's own authorities break the law, this is a severe blow to the rule of law. When such things happen, the democratic system is liable to be undermined."

A Haaretz investigation confirmed Sasson's statement that outpost construction continues as usual; the only change it found is a slight improvement in the defense establishment's gathering of information about such construction.

Following the Haaretz report, Interior Minister Ofer Pines-Paz said a government that does not respect the law encourages people to violate it. "The current reality is a result of inaction by the government, which is blocking the implementation of the Sasson report's recomendations, and the evacuation of six outposts immediately."

In the wake of the Haaretz investigation, Yahad MK Haim Oron called Monday for an urgent Knesset section to discuss the matter.

"Under the umbrella of disengagement and the shelter of the government, Yesha leaders and elements within the military continue to get around the law," Oron said, referring to the Yesha Council of settlements. "It hardly makes sense that the government conducts a war against illegal building in the Arab sector even as flagrant violations of the law continue in the settlements and outposts."

Defense establishment data shows that during the first five months of this year, there were 197 incidents of illegal Jewish construction in the West Bank, of which about two-thirds occurred after the Sasson Report was published. But the illegal buildings were destroyed in only 37 cases - mostly by the settlers at the army's request, rather than by the Israel Defense Forces themselves.

Sources knowledgeable about the outposts said that the construction figures are slightly higher than they were in previous years, but this does not necessarily mean that the amount of illegal construction has increased. It is also possible, they said, that the defense establishment has simply started paying more attention to the phenomenon.

However, they added, nothing has been done that would signal to the settlers that the state has changed its attitude toward construction in the outposts, despite Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's adoption of Sasson's scathing report - which he commissioned - and his establishment of a ministerial committee to discuss the implementation of the report's conclusions, which is supposed to finish its work next week.

While the IDF has issued orders to halt construction in the outposts, it has not tried to enforce them, because the government does not want to pick a fight with the settlers over the outposts during the run-up to the disengagement. The government has said that it will start dealing with the outposts only after the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank is completed. It first committed to dismantle the outposts in the 2002 road map peace plan and has reiterated this promise many times since, but to date, only a few inhabited outposts have been dismantled - and in some of these cases, the residents later rebuilt them.

The defense establishment's only real success thus far in the battle against illegal building in the outposts has been in preventing mobile homes from being brought into the outposts. Even here, however, the settlers seem to have found a way around the problem: Instead of living in mobile homes, many outpost residents are simply building permanent houses - and government agencies are turning a blind eye, and sometimes even providing indirect assistance.

Most of the outposts where widespread permanent construction is taking place are in the Ramallah area, under the jurisdiction of the Benjamin Regional Council. These include Palgei Mayim, near Eli, between Ramallah and Nablus, and Amuna, near Ofra, north of Ramallah. Security sources define Amuna as "blatantly illegal," but it nevertheless finished building nine houses recently and is even offering them for sale. There is also widespread construction in Bruchin, between Peduel and Alei Zahav, west of Ariel.

Last week, GOC Central Command Yair Naveh sent an angry letter to the head of the Yesha Council of settlements, Bentzi Lieberman, after the council distributed a letter to all the settlements in which it defined Brigadier General Ilan Paz, the head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, as persona non grata and urged residents to keep him and his inspectors out of their settlements.

In his letter, Naveh stressed that Paz is an integral part of the army and said the council's decision "constitutes a severe and unacceptable injury to the IDF and everything it represents ... We will continue to act according to the laws of the country, while also continuing to support the settlements. The IDF views your letter very gravely and expects you to rescind its contents."