JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Sharon was poised this week to announce sweeping new measures to dismantle settlement outposts and stop new ones being built, after a scathing report that he commissioned pointed to large-scale collusion in “blatant violation of the law” by government ministries and other official bodies.
The report, authored by former chief state prosecutor Talia Sasson, charges that the Defense, Housing and Education ministries have channeled funds and lent material aid to the outposts, some of which were constructed on privately owned Palestinian property. It claims that army commanders turned a blind eye to trucks hauling mobile homes to the outposts and that housing authorities provided utility hookups to the illegal settlements.
The land settlement department of the quasi-governmental World Zionist Organization is described as the main “operational arm” of the illegal undertaking.
The Sharon government committed itself under President Bush’s Middle East road map in 2003 to dismantle outposts erected since Sharon took office in March 2001. Critics have charged that outpost construction was continuing despite the government’s commitment to halt it, but government spokesmen have denied it. Sharon commissioned the Sasson report a year ago under international pressure.
The Bush administration had eased pressure on Sharon to dismantle outposts because of the planned Gaza disengagement, which Sharon had argued would tax the government’s ability to confront settlers. This week, however, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice flatly called for dismantling of outposts in a meeting with visiting Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Rice reportedly warned that failure to act on the outposts would damage U.S.-Israel relations.
The Sasson report comes one week after arrest of five men, including the former chief executive of a Jewish National Fund subsidiary, on charges of operating a ring that fraudulently trafficked in privately owned Palestinian land. One of the five is a ranking officer in the army’s West Bank civil administration, Lt. Col. Yair Blumenthal.
The Jewish National Fund said it had cooperated with police in the investigation. The JNF subsidiary, Himnuta, allegedly bought at least five plots of land based on forged documents indicating that they had been sold by their Palestinian owners.
The chief superintendent of the Judea-Samaria District Police, Eliezer Elhar, said that the motive of the five suspects was primarily financial, but some may have been influenced by an “ideological” desire to “redeem” Palestinian lands and use them for Jewish settlement.
Sharon is to visit Washington next month to discuss the disengagement plan and the road map, among other issues. Washington and the European Union are pressing Israel to make the disengagement a part of the larger road map to peace. Shalom complained to Rice this week that the Palestinians were not fulfilling their obligation to dismantle terror organizations, seeking instead to negotiate with them.
Israel was to hand over two West Bank cities, Tulkarem and Jericho, to Palestinian security control this week, though disagreements over the transfer were delaying implementation even after Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas met with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz Tuesday to resolve the details. Earlier, Abbas complained to his parliament that Israel was jeopardizing peace by dragging its feet on transferring security control and releasing prisoners.
Palestinian security adviser Jibril Rajoub said after the Mofaz-Abbas meeting that all Palestinian factions had agreed to a cease-fire, and that Hamas would participate in upcoming Palestinian elections.
Settler leaders and their allies charged that the Sasson report, far from demonstrating the outposts’ illegality, proves that they were built as part of government policy. “While the Israeli government is trying to portray the settlers as outlaws, it has become clear that the blame lies with the government itself,” Knesset member Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party told Itim news service. “The report proves that the settlers acted with authorization and permission.”
Orlev said the government should take responsibility for the settlers’ actions, adding that the report proves the settlers’ evacuation is unjustified.
The report concludes that illegal settlements, some of which were built on privately owned Palestinian land, should be dismantled. It calls for legal action against any officials involved in illegally abetting outpost construction in the future.
It also urges that curbs be placed on the operations of the World Zionist Organization settlement department of the World Zionist Organization, and calls for increased supervision of the department’s activities in the territories.
WZO officials complained privately this week that they were being made scapegoats for decisions taken by higher-ups, including Sharon. Sharon has been described as intimately involved in settlement construction decisions, reportedly poring over maps with settlement movement leader Ze’ev Hever, his close friend and former ally.
Most of the report’s findings and recommendations regarding the various bodies involved in outpost construction have appeared in reports by Israel’s state comptroller and internal reports submitted by several attorneys general.
In 1997, then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein wrote formally to the chief military prosecutor, Brigadier-General Uri Shoham, and chief of Central Command General Uzi Dayan, warning of “the increasing incidents of land invasions in Judea and Samaria, by building roads, placing mobile homes and building structures.”
Rubinstein wrote again a year later, complaining that not only had nothing been done since his last letter, but that the situation had become worse. Three months later he warned Dayan of ongoing violations and demanded that he act immediately to evacuate the squatters. He wrote that if the structures were not destroyed they might become permanent, thus “trampling the rule of law and holding it in contempt.”