Israel guilty of funding illegal outposts

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The Independent Online

The Israeli government has been actively and secretly conniving with Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank to construct outposts in direct violation of domestic and international law, according to damning official report.

The Israeli government has been actively and secretly conniving with Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank to construct outposts in direct violation of domestic and international law, according to damning official report.

Talia Sasson, the former state prosecutor, called for "drastic steps" to halt the clandestine funding by ministries of outpost growth and warned: "Such a blatant violation of the law from so many different directions is liable to hobble Israel's democratic regime and must be redressed."

Her report, published yesterday, is the most authoritative and comprehensive indictment yet of government help for more than 100 "unauthorised" outposts - in effect residential nuclei for expansion of settlements in territory seized from the Palestinians in 1967. It traces the active but clandestine role played in their growth since the first Oslo accord in 1993 by successive Israeli governments up to and including the present one of Ariel Sharon.

The report was commissioned by Mr Sharon, who has come under growing US pressure to fulfil repeated promises to dismantle the outposts, the establishment of which is seen by Palestinians, international and Israeli critics as militating against the prospects of a contiguous Palestinian state.

While the government frequently cites legal difficulties, Ms Sasson's report says enforcement is made especially difficult by government "double-talk". She says this is exemplified by officials helping create outposts while publicly demanding they be stopped.

About half of the outposts are on privately owned Palestinian land that does not even fulfil the minimal - and internationally disputed - legal criteria applied by Israel to land sequestered in the West Bank. Among those, several were directly financed by the housing ministry, which spent about £10m funding outposts between 2001 and 2004.

Ms Sasson says the housing ministry, which spent £5m of public funds on mobile homes, usually used to establish an outpost, in 2003 alone, should be formally stripped of its responsibility for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the powers given to the full cabinet.

Asked if Mr Sharon - who while in opposition in 1998 urged settlers to "seize the hilltops" and create outposts - was personally responsible, she said that the report did not address individual culpability.

But Ms Sasson blamed the Israel Defence Force's civil administration in the West Bank for shirking its oversight duties and disregarding legal orders to demolish outposts. She also confirms findings last year by Israel's comptroller general that the defence ministry was involved in abetting and funding outposts.

Mr Sharon is aware that the report, which he will discuss in cabinet on Sunday, is bound to increase international pressure for the authorisation of force if necessary to dismantle outposts, something the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has reminded Israel it is obliged to do by law as well as under the provisions of the first phase of the "road map" for peace. Ms Sasson says in her report that six outposts already have Supreme Court clearance for immediate dismantlement.

But while Ms Sasson recommends that the Attorney General, Menachem Mazuz, launch a formal investigation, some critics were sceptical last night that it would go ahead, not least because officials could point the finger at ministers' tacit consent to the illegal activity.

Dror Etkes, the veteran Peace Now settlement-watcher, said he feared the report could become a "piece of prehistoric archaeology within a few weeks". Government sources insisted Mr Sharon's decision to commission it was an act of "political courage" in line with other moves designed to bring about peace with the Palestinians.

Despite widespread predictions that Mr Sharon would not move against the outposts at least until after disengagement from Gaza, one senior source suggested that he was ready to begin outpost dismantlement immediately.

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