Author: Daoud Kuttab Posted May 17, 2013
On the surface, the issue seems rather futile. The Israeli government, which has built hundreds of exclusively Jewish settlements in the occupied territories in violation of international law, is being criticized for "legalizing" four of these illegal settlements. What is it about "outposts" that makes them different from other settlements? A deeper look at the issue reveals decades of attempts to fool the international community about Israel’s commitment to peace.
To understand the difference, it is important to go back to the beginning of this century. The US and its allies were preparing to go to war against Iraq (after having already gone to war against Afghanistan in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001). To minimize potential anti-Americanism, the Bush administration leaned on its Israeli allies not to carry out any actions that would provoke the anger of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. The US attempts to simultaneously restart Palestinian-Israeli talks required that Israel refrain from any further official settlement activity.
As a result of this situation, the pro-settlement right-wing Israeli leader Ariel Sharon looked for ways to avoid carrying out any official settlement activity while wanting to disrupt any negotiations that could lead to Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. It was during this period in 2002 that then-prime minister Sharon called for Israeli settlers “... to capture the hilltops in the occupied West Bank before losing them to Palestinians in negotiations.” Within a short time, 221 illegal Israeli settlement outposts were established.
The Israelis made it clear that they would turn a blind eye to attempts by Jewish settlers to expand and create new housing units. Thus, the term “outpost” was created to refer to settlements built without official Israeli government approval. While these outposts were not officially sanctioned, Israeli soldiers were made available to protect the settlers and their units once they were up.
By 2003, calls were raised to the State of Israel to honor its own laws and dismantle these settlements, many of which were built on Palestinian private lands, which added yet another layer of illegality. The issue became part of the internationally accepted Road Map for peace.
Usually, official Israeli settlements are built on "state land," or private land that is officially confiscated as needed for "public purposes." In those cases, the private Palestinian owners are offered financial compensation, which Palestinians reject across the board. When all else fails, private lands are often turned into state land.
The Israeli government, obsessed with having legal cover for its internationally illegal acts, has always tried to respect its own rules. The outposts have been one major exception.
The level of government collusion in helping create these outposts was best revealed by Israeli Ministry of Justice official Talia Sasson. Sasson was asked by Sharon himself to investigate these outposts. This took place at a time that Sharon himself was experiencing a change of heart that led, among other things, to the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza.
Sasson, who was at the time the head of the State Prosecutor's Criminal Department, issued a scathing report that caught many settlers and their supporters off guard. The 2005 Sasson report stated that the Israeli Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Housing and Construction and the World Zionist Organization were diverting millions of shekels to build “illegal outposts” in the West Bank.
Over the past ten years, Israel has officially said it would dismantle the settlements built without official approval. These promises were made repeatedly to US officials, but nothing much came of it. Except for a few outposts that were reportedly dismantled, most have remained where they are, and the Israeli government has been looking for opportunities to "legalize" them in Israeli judicial terms.
The latest effort became public this week when information given to the Israeli High Court hinted that the Israeli government is “looking into ways to legalize four of the communities: Maaleh Rehavam, Haroeh, Givat Assaf and Mitzpeh Lachish.” Peace Now, which publicized the issue, determined that the Israel government “is trying to avoid the enforcement of the law and to legalize the outposts instead of evicting them," said Hagit Ofran, a Peace Now spokesperson. She called the move "a slap in the face" to US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is expected in the region next week to kick-start Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
Whether they are settlements approved by the state of Israel or outposts built without approval, all this construction is considered illegal by the international community. The International Court of Justice ruled clearly that Israeli occupation-built and defended settlements are illegal. The only question that remains is when the international community will have the power to stop this crime.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab.
Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/05/israeli-outposts-settlements-westbank.html
Daoud Kuttab is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab
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