Israeli panel backs legalizing settler outposts


A government-appointed committee on Monday proposed granting official status to dozens of unauthorized settler outposts in the West Bank, challenging the world view that Israeli settlement there is illegal.

The non-binding legal opinion, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sought, could be used by the right-wing leader to address criticism at home and abroad of his declared plans to build more homes for Jews on land Palestinians want for a state.

Three months ago, his governing coalition drew Palestinian and international condemnation when it retroactively legalized three West Bank outposts built without official sanction.

But the panel, chaired by a former Israeli Supreme Court justice who has written pro-settlement opinions from the bench, reaffirmed Israel’s long-held view that the West Bank is not occupied territory and that settling Jews there is legal.

The opinion, yet to be formally accepted by the government and swiftly disputed by the Palestinians, flew in the face of a World Court ruling that all settlements are illegal because of their location on occupied land.

The Israeli committee disputed that ruling, arguing Israel’s control of the West Bank does not constitute occupation as no country had sovereignty over the territory when it was captured from Jordan in a 1967 war.

“Therefore, according to international law, Israelis have the legal right to settle in Judea and Samaria and the establishment of settlements cannot, in and of itself, be considered to be illegal,” it said, using the Biblical names for the West Bank.

Jordan captured the West Bank, which had been part of British-mandated Palestine, in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and annexed it in a move that never won international recognition.

Israel has built some 120 settlements in the West Bank. Dozens of unauthorized outposts, which past Israeli governments had pledged to remove, have also gone up in the territory.

PALESTINIAN ANGER

Palestinians say the enclaves will deny them a viable and contiguous state, a view that has won wide international support. Their peace talks with Israel collapsed in 2010 over the settlement issue.

“All settlements are illegal according to international law and international resolutions,” Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said of the committee’s report.

“The Israeli government must cease settlement activity and curb settler attacks and adhere to international resolutions if it wants to achieve peace,” Abu Rdeineh added.

Addressing the issue of unsanctioned settlement outposts, the committee echoed a 2005 government report in determining that they had been established “with the knowledge, encouragement and tacit agreement of the most senior political level”.

But unlike the 2005 document, which said quiet government support and funding for unauthorized settlements were illegal, the new report recommended expanding them.

The time had come, it said, to complete formal “planning and zoning procedures” and to set the “municipal jurisdiction” of each outpost, taking into consideration their growing populations.

“Pending completion of those proceedings and examination of the possibility of granting valid building permits, the state is advised to avoid carrying out demolition orders,” the panel said.

Yariv Oppenheimer of the anti-settlement group Peace Now said the panel had “delivered the goods” for the Israeli right.

“The legal world is a wonderful one, just choose a position and you will always be able to find a legal expert who can defend it,” he said on Army Radio. “The committee has forgotten that there are 2.5 million stateless Palestinians under Israeli military rule.”

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Andrew Osborn

Israeli panel: West Bank settlements, outposts legal under int’l law


West Bank settlements are legal under international law, according to an Israeli committee set up to review the legal status of West Bank land.

The Levy Committee, which was formed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and headed by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, said in its 89-page report released late Sunday that “Israel does not meet the criteria of ‘military occupation’ as defined under international law” in the West Bank, and that therefore settlements and West Bank outposts are legal.

The report recommends changing the legal regulations concerning Jewish settlement in the West Bank in the areas of zoning, demolitions and building.

The committee calls for the legalization of all outposts and allowing landowners to register land in the West Bank under their own names, as well as allowing people who built homes on Palestinian-owned land to pay compensation to the alleged owners if the construction was made in good faith.

It accepted the legal opinion of the right wing in determining that Israel is not an occupying power on the West Bank, saying that the West Bank was never a legitimate part of any surrounding country, including Jordan. “(N)o other legal entity has ever had its sovereignty over the area cemented under international law,” the report said.

In addition, there is no place in international law stating that it is illegal for Jews to live in the West Bank, the committee wrote.

The findings of the committee are subject to the review and approval of Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

Netanyahu established the committee in January after settler leaders called for a response to the 2005 Sasson Report on illegal outposts, which concluded that more than 100 West Bank settlements and outposts constructed from the 1990s and forward were illegal.

Netanyahu says he wants to legalize West Bank outposts


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he will submit a plan to legalize several West Bank outposts and avoid the demolition of another.

At Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he asked Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to “find a solution” for the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El “that would obviate the need for demolition.” The government had previously agreed to evacuate the illegal outpost by May.

Netanyahu also told the ministers that he will submit, with the recommendation of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a plan to legalize the outposts of Bruchin, Sansana and Rechalim, which are said to be built on private Palestinian land.

The announcement came as Jewish settlers who last week occupied a house in Hebron near the Cave of the Patriarch were evacuated by Israeli security forces.

Lieberman threatens to bring down government over outposts


Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened to bring down the Netanyahu government if it orders the demolition of two West Bank outposts.

Lieberman said Monday at a meeting of his Yisrael Beiteinu party that he would pull his party out of the government coalition, causing it to collapse, if the government goes ahead with the planned demolition of the Givat Assaf and Migron outposts. Both demolitions have been ordered by Israel’s Supreme Court.

Lieberman also threatened to bring down the government if the Cabinet decides to transfer withheld Palestinian tax money to the Palestinian Authority. The Security Cabinet on Sunday decided to continue to withhold about $100 million in tax payments collected on the Palestinians’ behalf.

The money was withheld originally after the Palestinians were accepted as full members of UNESCO, the United Nations scientific and cultural agency, and is continuing to be withheld over Fatah-Hamas unity talks.

Evacuation of two iIlegal outposts postponed


Two illegal West Bank outposts set to be evacuated by the end of the year have a reprieve.

The Israeli government informed the Supreme Court that the Givat Asaf outpost will be demolished in July, and that Amona will be demolished by December 2012. Both northern West Bank outposts are built on private Palestinian property.

The Migron outpost is still scheduled to be demolished by March, the state reportedly told the court. Israel also will remove some homes in the Ramat Gilad and Mitzpe Yitzhar outposts that are built on private Palestinian land.

The government has been looking for ways to make outposts constructed on state land legal. But in response to several lawsuits in the Supreme Court by Israeli human rights organizations, it agreed to demolish outpost buildings, including homes, on privately owned Palestinian land.

A Supreme Court-ordered demolition of homes in the Amona outpost enforced by the government in February 2006 sparked a confrontation between settlers and police that turned violent.

Netanyahu tells coalition outposts must be razed


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the hackles of many members of his coalition when he said that illegal outposts must be razed.

“The settlement movement is important to everyone and to me as well,” Netanyahu said Monday evening at a Likud faction meeting. “However, our efforts must focus on strengthening our existing settlements and not battling the law.”

He reiterated that outposts must not be built on privately owned Palestinian land, which is illegal.

“We will continue preserving the settlements as well as the law, and there is no contradiction between the two,” he said.

Netanyahu reminded his coalition that last week he ordered the acceleration of construction of 2,000 homes in the West Bank. He noted that the areas where the construction will occur are certain to remain under Israeli sovereignty in an eventual peace agreement with the Palestinians.

His comments come less than a month after he announced that he would establish a panel to examine whether some outposts could be retroactively legalized, either by researching the origin of the land to determine whether it is really owned by Palestinians, or by purchasing the land from its Palestinian owners. The panel has not yet been formed.

Several outposts are under threat of court ordered demolitions in the coming months.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President George W. Bush in 2003 to destroy about two dozen hilltop outposts, which has not been done to this day.

Raze illegal outposts, Israeli Cabinet orders


Israel’s Cabinet has ordered the demolition of all illegal West Bank outposts built on private Palestinian land by the end of the year.

Monday’s decision, echoing one announced earlier this month, comes in response to a petition submitted by Peace Now to the Supreme Court calling for the demolition of six outposts: Ramat Gilad, Mitzpe Yitzhar, Givat Har’eh, Givat Asaf, Ma’aleh Rehavam and Mitzpeh Lachish.

According to the document submitted Monday by the Cabinet to Israel’s Supreme Court, the state will raze 47 homes in five of the outposts. Mitzpe Lachish is located on state land and Givat Assaf is built on Palestinian land. The other four outposts are built both on Palestinian and state land.

The decision exempts the home of slain Israeli soldier Eliraz Peretz, who was killed in Gaza more than a year ago.

The decision comes a week after Israeli troops and settlers clashed during and after the demolition of three structures on the Gilad Farm outpost.

Peace Now says that 64 other outposts are partially or fully built on private Palestinian land.

Danny Dayan, chairman of the Yesha Council, a settlers’ umbrella group, called Monday’s announcement “an act of provocation that will only serve to incite and anger while serving no practical purpose in bettering relations with our Arab neighbors.”

“This is a situation which can be addressed through negotiations and solved amicably rather than through this provocative approach being proposed by the government,” Dayan said of the outposts on Palestinian-owned land. “We would implore the prime minister and his government to act sensibly and place the Israeli people’s interests before the constantly changing whims of the international community and a handful of Peace Now activists.”

Also Monday, nine Palestinians were reported injured after Israeli soldiers fired on Palestinian villagers during clashes with Jewish settlers near Nablus. One Israeli also was hurt after being hit in the head with a rock, according to reports.

Soldiers said they opened fire because they felt threatened by the Palestinians, according to Haaretz.

Palestinians say the clashes began after a group of settlers cut down a field of olive trees. Settlers say Palestinians armed with knives attacked them at the Eli Ayin outpost near the Shiloh settlement.

The Israeli military is investigating the use of live ammunition.

Meanwhile, the structures demolished at Gilad Farm have been rebuilt and four new structures are being set up, Ynet reported.

Settlers Struggle to Hold Biblical Israel


A battered shipping container was Itai Harel’s first home on this steep, windswept hilltop.

Now he lives in a trailer with running water and electricity, and land has been leveled for more permanent housing in this illegal settlement outpost. He and his fellow young settlers are gearing up to fight for their new hilltop home.

Migron, the largest and most established of the 100 or so illegal Jewish outposts set up across the West Bank, is on the front lines of a looming showdown between the settler movement and the Israeli government. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently pledged to dismantle such settlements in accordance with the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan.

On Dec. 28, Israel ordered the removal of four of the outposts. The settlers can now petition against the action through the courts.

But settler rabbis called upon supporters to physically prevent the settlements’ dismantlement, and called upon army officers not to order their soldiers to dismantle the settlements.

Harel expressed similar sentiments.

“We are staying here. It’s our home,” said Harel, 29, vowing to return if the government somehow manages to remove them.

“It is our right to be here; this is our national home,” he said, sweeping his hand toward the view of Arab villages and Jewish settlements on nearby hillsides.

However, the settlers’ position may have been undercut by the National Religious Party (NRP), the main settler political body.

The NRP’s chairman, Housing and Construction Minister Effi Eitam, said Dec. 29 that the NRP would support the removal of four unauthorized outposts if no way could be found to authorize them.

The NRP “is part of the government, part of the rule of law in the State of Israel. If, in the end, after every avenue has been pursued, these outposts cannot be authorized, then we will not be able to support anything that is not legal,” Eitam told Israel’s Army Radio.

Over the past two years, 42 families have moved to Migron. They are young, defiant and fiercely ideological. Casting themselves as part of a continuum of ancient and modern Jewish history, they view their unauthorized building of an outpost about 20 minutes drive north of Jerusalem as key to strengthening the Jewish claim to biblical Israel. They also see it as similar to efforts by early Zionists to create “facts on the ground” in what became Israel proper.

Critics and the U.S. government see the outposts, built hastily and without government approval, as yet another obstacle to peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Harel and his friends at Migron, which is named after a biblical-era settlement in the region, are hesitant to say exactly how they would resist soldiers should they attempt an evacuation.

Pinchas Wallerstein, who heads the local settlement region of the West Bank, called Binyamin, said he hopes the Israeli courts will help prevent an evacuation order.

If that fails, he said he foresees thousands of supporters coming to Migron to help thwart police and army forces.

“If we have 7,000 to 10,000 people here it will not be possible to evacuate us,” Wallerstein said, addressing a wedding party from Houston that had come to see Migron as part of a tour of West Bank Jewish settlements. “Why is it legitimate to evacuate Jewish settlements but we cannot withdraw [Arab villages?]” he asked, calling any evacuation a reward for terrorism.

Before climbing back on their bus, the visiting Americans posed for pictures with Wallerstein, who has temporarily moved the Binyamina headquarters to Migron to head the campaign against its possible removal.

In a show of solidarity, Israel’s well-organized settler movement has helped facilitate visits by thousands of people to Migron in recent weeks.

Jerry Silverman, one of the wedding party members, said he hoped the issue would be resolved through negotiations.

“The American government is not in charge of Israel,” he said.

Sharon, long a patron of the settler movement, is under intense pressure from the U.S. administration to fulfill Israel’s obligations under the road map, beginning with the dismantling of illegal outposts that have cropped up over the last several years. Many were established in the immediate aftermath of Arab terrorist attacks on local settlers.

In a speech earlier this month, Sharon said some settlements would have to be evacuated if Israel disengages physically from the Palestinians.

The first Israeli presence on the hill where Migron stands today were cell phone towers built by local phone companies four years ago. Young settlers followed about two years later.

The Israeli government said it expects to begin evacuating settlement outposts in the next few weeks. Officials hope settlers will leave without a fight.

“If the outposts are illegal, then they will be dealt with — hopefully with persuasion, but otherwise with force,” said Zalman Shoval, a foreign policy adviser to Sharon.

“Hopefully that won’t be necessary,” he added quickly.

The four outposts slated for quick removal reportedly are Ginot Aryeh, near Ofra; Hazon David, near Kiryat Arba; Bat Ayin Ma’arav, in Gush Etzion; and Havat Shaked, near Yitzhar.

Only one of the outposts — Ginot Aryeh — is inhabited, with about 10 families living there as well as a few single people.

Unlike most other outposts, Migron is more than a small collection of tents and trailers. There is a paved circular road and two buildings with stone facades, one that serves as a synagogue, the other a nursery school.

Still, amenities are basic.

Next to the community’s row of portable toilets is a large white plastic tent for meetings and celebrations. Trailers are clustered in muddy patches of land. A private security guard in a fleece jacket and armed with an Uzi machine gun mans the entrance. A fence topped with rings of barbed wire surrounds the outpost.

“It’s clear it is worth the price. We are here to live a quality life, to live an ideal,” Harel said.

Peace activists say that ideal is misguided and dangerous. It also does not represent the views of most Israelis, who according to polls, are willing to withdraw from most West Bank and Gaza Strip settlements in the event of an eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.

As long as settlement building continues, “we will be doomed to more and more international condemnation, economic recession and violence,” said Dror Etkes, who coordinates Peace Now’s Settlement Watch Project. “Another settlement is another rock in the occupation and oppression [of the Palestinians].”

Etkes said he saw Sharon’s recent policy speech as a potential turning point since the Israeli government has yet to dismantle any settlements of significant size.

“If the settlements are uprooted then the first inroads will be made,” he said. “Migron could be the first uprooted and this will be a historic event.”

Shlomo and Hagit Ha’Cohen, both 25, see Migron’s place in history differently.

They say they are living Jewish history in their decision to live and establish a family in Migron. Hagit, who teaches history and civics at a Jerusalem high school, is expecting the couple’s first child in January.

“We see this as our home forever, even if there are problems along the way,” said her husband, a yeshiva student who plans to study civil engineering. “With all due respect to the Americans, at the end of the day we are the ones who decide.”

Sitting in their bookshelf-lined three-room trailer, for which they pay $70 a month rent, Shlomo cites the story of Chanukah and the conflict between the ancient Greeks and the Israelites.

“Many imperial powers have told us what to do throughout history. They no longer exist. Israel is still here,” he said. “Our path is clear, we know where we want to go.”