Israeli attorney Talia Sasson has delivered an interim report about illegal outposts, those settlements in the West Bank that have been built without official Israeli authorization for more than a decade. After months of research and frustration in dealing with stonewalling bureaucrats, she managed to document what Peace Now has been saying for years: The settlers did not act alone in building the outposts. Israel’s Housing Ministry and Defense Ministry, along with the World Zionist Organization’s Settlements Division, were found to have illicitly pumped millions of dollars into the outposts through a system of winks and nods that shredded the rule of law.
The Sasson report not only brings shame to Israeli governmental institutions, it also exposes the weak oversight exercised by American and other Diaspora Jewish leaders who nominally are in charge of the World Zionist Organization. Whether through negligence or active support, the international Jewish community facilitated a massive violation of Israeli law.
Although Prime Minister Sharon deserves credit for ordering the study and promising to follow its conclusions, he could have saved a great deal of time by simply publishing his diary. It is now absolutely clear — as if there had been any doubts — that Sharon himself has been one of the main forces behind this connivance with the settlers throughout his years in government.
Of the hundred or so outposts that are still standing, about half of them were established after March 2001, when Sharon first became prime minister. These outposts should have been taken down under the terms of the Road Map over a year ago, yet remain untouched. He also lent a hand in building many of the other outposts that dot the West Bank hilltops.
The Sasson report is far from the last word on settlements. Outposts are just one aspect of a settlement movement that has corrupted the democratic process in Israel.
Sasson lays out how time and again the settlers took matters into their own hands to set up outposts without any sort of vote, using secret alliances with sympathetic bureaucrats and politicians to divert tax money for establishing houses, paving roads and hooking up water and electricity services for the greater glory of the Land of Israel.
The settlers take the same approach to the more “veteran” settlements. Despite another Israeli obligation under the Road Map, to freeze all settlement activity including natural growth, the older settlements continue to expand their borders so that they can cover more territory and accommodate larger populations that are attracted to the West Bank — in part because of generous government financial incentives. This territorial and population growth, which is much greater than that of the outposts, makes it less likely that these settlements will be evacuated to allow for the establishment of the viable Palestinian state that is supposed to emerge from the peace process.
The weakening of Israeli democracy, the waste of Israeli tax money, the repeated violations of Israeli commitments and the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — all these problems can be traced to the settlement movement and can no longer be ignored.
It should be noted that Sharon is taking a very significant step to address part of the situation through his disengagement plan, which can set an important precedent for removing settlements and outposts. But this step is not enough. One need only look at the current attempt by some Cabinet ministers to draw a distinction between West Bank outposts built before and after the Road Map cutoff date to understand that unless those responsible for building the outposts are held accountable, the settlers and their allies will continue to skirt Israeli law.
There must be an official investigation of all those involved in the illegal activities outlined in the Sasson report. It must be made clear that if Israel wants anyone to take seriously its own declaration to be “the Middle East’s only democracy,” then it cannot tolerate the open flouting of its laws.
Further, there must be an open debate — both in Israel and the Diaspora — about the state of the settlement enterprise, about how much it has cost the nation, and whether Israel should continue short-changing its domestic needs in order to maintain its occupation of the Palestinians. Israeli taxpayers and overseas donors must demand the implementation of the reforms that Sasson has offered, and not permit the Cabinet committee assigned to study her report to bury these measures through endless delay and deliberation. Those agencies that withheld information from Sasson must be compelled to cooperate.
Finally, there must be a realization that with a credible Palestinian peace partner now in the place, the time has come for Israel to live up to its obligations regarding the settlements, just as the Palestinians must meet their responsibilities to fight terrorism.
Dror Etkes is director of Peace Now’s Settlements Watch project.