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Remove illegal settlements now


WASHINGTON - The Israeli Cabinet voted March 13 to set up a government committee to propose action within 90 days on illegal settlements in the West Bank. June 11 marks the end of the 90-day period. Guess what? There's no sign of a proposal.

The ad hoc ministerial committee, which was established to help implement a government report from attorney Talia Sasson that was accepted by the Cabinet, has lived up to the cynics" expectations, serving more as a burial society than an agent of change.

Unfortunately, the problem of illegal outposts continues to fester, along with the lawlessness and government complicity that make them possible. For the sake of preserving Israel's democracy and prospects for peace, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must resurrect the Sasson report and begin implementing its recommendations immediately.

Outposts are new Jewish settlements that were built in the occupied territories without prior legal approval from the Israeli government. They are intended to create contiguity between veteran settlements in the West Bank and will make it more difficult to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

According to Peace Now's Settlements Watch project, about 120 outposts have been established over the years, about 100 of which - with about 1,500 people -still stand.

Under the U.S.-orchestrated 'road map' to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel is obligated to immediately dismantle outposts established since March 2001. Mr. Sharon gave his word to President Bush that these outposts will be removed, telling him at their summit in Crawford, Texas, on April 11: "I will fulfill my commitments to you, Mr. President, to remove unauthorized outposts."

While a few uninhabited outposts have been taken down, most of those that should be evacuated - about 50 - have not been touched. Ms. Sasson says in her report that she does not believe she was given full information from various government agencies about how many outposts have been built and therefore she cannot say for certain how many there are.

The Israeli government's official number of those that must be dismantled under the road map is 24; the U.S. government's number is in the eighties.

Israel's unwillingness to deal with these outposts represents more than a threat to the peace process and Israel's credibility with the United States; it's also a threat to Israeli democracy and rule of law.

Ms. Sasson found that many of the illegal outposts - over half of which were built on land that did not belong to the state - were erected with the assistance of several government ministries.

The World Zionist Organization's Settlements Division established outposts without prior political authorization. The Housing Ministry helped with financing for outpost infrastructure and buildings, disguising its assistance as building new neighborhoods for veteran settlements. And the defense minister's assistant for settlement affairs, Ron Shachner, was found to have written letters to the Settlement Division in which he falsely stated that certain illegal outposts are independent settlements and should be funded.

In short, said Ms. Sasson, "it seems that the lawbreaking has become institutionalized and institutional."

To remedy the situation, Ms. Sasson said, there is no need for a new law to evacuate and dismantle outposts. Instead, she recommended that all 15 outposts that are built on Palestinian-owned land should be dismantled immediately and returned to their owners.

Further, she called for terminating the activities of the Settlement Division under its present mandate, prohibiting the Housing Ministry from planning the establishment of a settlement or neighborhood in existing settlements without prior political approval, reconsidering the position of the defense minister's assistant for settlement affairs and prohibiting the defense minister from connecting outposts to electricity and water supplies.

"The government must take into its hands responsibility for what is happening in the outposts in the territories and not sit on the sidelines watching as the settlers do whatever they want, without anyone stopping them." Ms. Sasson said. "They are all illegal.

"It is important to emphasize that it's not merely to evacuate the outposts but to cease the entire procedure of budgeting and transferring state funds to the outposts. The very heart of the report is about the enforcement of the law, which is not a political issue but a legal one, of tremendous importance for a democratic state."

Mr. Sharon, presented with such a litany of criminal behavior, corruption and abuse, should have jumped at the chance to follow clear-cut recommendations to end these illegal practices. Alternatively, Mr. Bush should have pressed the prime minister to live up to his personal commitments and use the Sasson report as a pretext to finally dismantle outposts. But neither has happened.

The failure of both leaders to pursue this issue compounds the territorial problems that exist in the West Bank and undercuts Israeli rule of law. The Israeli government must not waste another minute, much less another 90 days, before taking action against the outposts of anti-democracy.

Mark Rosenblum is founder and policy director of Americans for Peace Now.

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