TEL AVIV — Israel is stalling on the removal of illegal outposts, according to the official who wrote a government report on the matter.
Eight months after the Cabinet approved her investigative report showing collusion by government agencies in the construction of illegal West Bank settlement outposts, the government has taken no significant steps to correct the situation, Talia Sasson said.
The reason, said Sasson, a former state prosecutor, is that ministers lack the political will. “This is clearly a political issue,” Sasson told the Forward. “There is a reason for this conduct, and the question should be raised to the political echelon.”
A top aide to Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Ron Shechner, resigned Wednesday. Sasson had recommended he be fired.
The report was prepared at the request of the prime minister and was submitted to the Cabinet in March. After reviewing the findings, the Cabinet appointed a special committee under Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. It is charged with implementing the report’s recommendations.
The report advised dismantling 24 illegal outposts, tightening budgetary and other rules to prevent unapproved use of government funds for unauthorized construction, and transferring officials known to be involved in the illegal activity. It also recommended severing the government’s ties to the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, which it named as a key factor in outpost construction.
The WZO is a nongovernmental body controlled and funded mainly by Diaspora Jewish organizations and philanthropies. The Settlement Division is a autonomous unit within the organization, funded by the government. Sasson suggested that the WZO unit was chosen as a conduit for the outpost construction in part because it was seen as outside the normal government channels. Sasson said Shechner had misled the WZO by telling its Settlement Division that the outposts had received government authorization.
Responding to the report in March, Prime Minister Sharon said the evacuation of the illegal outposts “is one of the commitments Israel took upon itself in the framework of the road map.” But according to Sasson, who was made an adviser to the ministerial committee, almost nothing has been done.
Sasson said that the government endorsement of the report did not include specific timetables for action. “All it said is that the committee should come up with a reform regarding the future construction of new settlements in the territories, within 90 days,” she said. “This is enough time, given the fact that my recommendations were very specific and detailed.” At the end of the original 90 days, Livni requested and received a two-month extension. The extension expired at the end of July. Recently she promised to present proposals to the Cabinet in the coming weeks.
However, the current turmoil within the Likud Party and the Knesset appears to ensure more delay. Sharon suffered a defeat in the Knesset this week when he attempted to win confirmation of two new ministers. Eight Likud rebels voted against him; led by former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the eight are hawks who opposed the withdrawal from Gaza.
Sharon aides have said in recent weeks that the continued opposition of the hawks within the Likud makes it unlikely that Sharon will be able to move dramatically against the West Bank outposts, despite the Cabinet decision and repeated promises to the Bush administration to do so.
Sasson’s report described outpost construction as a system by which settlers and their allies circumvented a freeze on new settlement construction imposed in 1993 by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Barred from building new communities, midlevel officials with ties to the settler movement began funding new projects without approval, supplying equipment and material, water and electrical lines to the illegal sites.
The report identified illegal outposts as those failing to meet the requirements spelled out in a 1979 Israeli law on settlement construction. Among other things, new projects require specific government approval and must be built on state-owned land.
The report identified 105 illegal outposts, including 54 that were built wholly or partly on private Palestinian-owned land seized for the purpose, a possible felony, the report said.
Of the total, 24 outposts were identified as built after March 2001, the cutoff date when the Sharon government promised the Bush administration that it would stop new settlement construction. Those were the outposts recommended for immediate dismantling.
The Sasson report determined that the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division was a pivotal player in the outpost scheme, serving as a conduit and coordinating new projects. The WZO was chosen in part because its status as a nongovernmental organization shielded it from government oversight. “I have found that the Settlement Division played an active role in new settlement construction — infrastructure plans, formulating the settler groups that will reside there and giving them job opportunities,” Sasson said.
“Nothing was done to stop this illegal activity,” she told the Forward.
In her report, Sasson recommended that the government stop all funding of the Settlement Division. She concluded that “fundamental change in the operation of the Settlement Division must take place.”
The WZO Settlement Division was created shortly after the 1967 Six Day War, as part of a reconstitution of the WZO and the Jewish Agency into separate bodies. The split was described as an effort to involve Diaspora donors more closely in the Jewish Agency’s activities. In the reconstitution, the former Land Settlement Department of the WZO, which had overseen creation of new Israeli villages since the 1920s, was separated into two bodies. The Jewish Agency would oversee development inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders, and the WZO division would pursue settlement activities in the territories captured in 1967.
Under the most recent government-WZO agreement, adopted in 2000, the division has a semi-independent budget financed with Israeli government funds, currently $40 million a year.
The Jewish Agency and the WZO remain closely linked, sharing staff and some joint facilities. The agency is the main source of the WZO’s $11 million general budget.
However, Jewish Agency spokesman Yarden Vatikay told the Forward, “Not even a cent crosses the line between the agency-related activities of the division and its activities in the territories.” This is meant to avoid the use of American donations in a manner contrary to American policy, which could compromise the tax-exempt status of American Jewish charities.
WZO governing bodies do not review the Settlement Division budget, which is under the supervision of the state comptroller.
Sasson’s report did not detail the sums allocated from the state budget to “illegal actions.” According to a study by the usually reliable Peace Now Settlement Watch, based on examination of the 2005 budget and traceable fund transfers by the Israeli government to recipients in the West Bank, more than $62 million in state funds was transferred directly to the settlements. More than $3.5 million was channeled to unauthorized outposts, all of it via the WZO Settlement Division.
The Forward did not find evidence of new outpost construction since the submission of Sasson’s report.
According to the Peace Now study, the Settlement Division pays for maintenance of generators in spots without power lines, gives loans and grants for water lines, and pays for temporary encampments.
“The Settlement Division is supposed to be an executive echelon implementing decisions made by the political echelon,” Sasson said. “In this case it was the other way around.”
The response of Settlement Division officials to the Sasson report and Peace Now findings has been clear and unequivocal. “No political approval is required for the establishment of outposts,” a division official told the Forward on condition of anonymity. “And if it is indeed required, it was granted.”
Sasson, a former chief of special assignments at the attorney general’s office, called the response “untrue.” “Establishment of an outpost requires the approval of the political echelon, according to both government resolutions and the law enforced in the territories,” she said. “The claim that political approval for establishing outposts was granted is false. The attempt to justify the division’s actions, by claiming it to be standard procedure inside Israel, is unacceptable. Actions violating the law cannot be justified.”
After Sasson’s report was issued, several members of the WZO executive committee demanded a special committee meeting, which was held in May. At the meeting, then-chairman Sallai Meridor stressed that no philanthropic donations are allocated to the division’s activity beyond the 1967 borders.
In response to follow-up questions from the Forward, a WZO spokesman declined to approve an interview with any Settlement Division officials or with the Jewish Agency’s newly elected chairman, Ze’ev Bielski.
“The Settlement Division of the WZO operates as an extension of the Israeli government in developing Judea, Samaria, the Galilee and the Negev,” spokesman Vatikay told the Forward. “All its operations are financed by government budgets approved by the Finance Ministry’s accountant, who works with the division and in accordance with the policies and instructions received from the Prime Minister’s Office and other relevant ministries. In full cooperation with these guidelines the division puts a lot of effort and money these days into finding housing and job opportunities for the Gush Katif evacuees. This is done alongside the Division’s continuous work throughout Israel. After the Sasson report was published, the division’s director, Mr. Avraham Duvdevani, gave a full report to the government regarding the Division’s actions. At the end of the session, it was decided to wait for the government’s decision regarding the ministerial committee’s conclusions.”