Israel tries to save West Bank settlements it vowed to dismantle

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JERUSALEM —Israel’s government is scrambling to find ways to save some of the unauthorized West Bank settlements it once promised to dismantle, including some that are built partly on private Palestinian land.

The new strategy seeks to retroactively legalize some outposts and, in other cases, relocate Jewish settlers to nearby land that is not privately owned, in effect creating what critics say would be the first new West Bank settlements in years.

The approach by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government appears designed to avoid the need to carry out high-profile military evictions of settlers in order to appease conservative lawmakers, who have accused Netanyahu of betraying the settlers’ cause.

But it raises questions about past promises by the succession of Israeli governments — to Palestinians, the international community and Israel’s own Supreme Court — to stop building new settlements and evacuate many of the illegal outposts, particularly those built on Palestinian land without official Israeli authorization.

Though most of the world views all Jewish settlements in the West Bank as illegal, Israel makes a distinction between settlements it has approved and those, known as outposts, that arose over the last 20 years. Most are small communities of ideological religious families who put up temporary housing without the permission of the Defense Ministry. Though the government labels them illegal, it also provides implicit support in the form of security, roads, electricity and other infrastructure.

The fate of these approximately 100 outposts was thrust back into the spotlight last month when the Supreme Court reiterated an order that Migron, the largest outpost in the West Bank, be evacuated this year, though it delayed the deadline to August. In doing so, the court rejected a government request to delay eviction for three years more while settlers are relocated about a mile away.

A few other outposts are also facing demolition deadlines in the coming months in response to court challenges by Palestinian landowners and anti-settlement activists.

Facing a backlash from settler groups and right-wing politicians over the impending evacuations, Netanyahu announced this month that he was committed to “strengthening” Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He ordered his attorney general to search for ways to legalize three other unauthorized outposts — Bruchin, Sansana and Rechelim — and to block the planned demolition of a fourth, Givat Haulpana, near the West Bank settlement of Beit El.

The decision marked a reversal for the government, which previously assured the Supreme Court that it would dismantle Givat Haulpana by May because it was built on private Palestinian land.

Palestinians said Netanyahu’s support of settlement expansion and the government’s continued approval of new housing permits suggest that Israel is not serious about resurrecting the peace process. Netanyahu is scheduled to meet this week with Palestinian officials in an attempt to restart negotiations, but the Palestinians say they won’t resume talks without a settlement freeze.

Meanwhile, conservative lawmakers are proposing legislation that would prevent the future dismantling of most existing outposts built on private Palestinian land by requiring Palestinian landowners to accept monetary compensation in lieu of the property.

Critics say the government’s actions violate both the spirit of peace accords, including the 1993 Oslo accords and the 2002 U.S-sponsored “road map,” and of explicit promises made to the Supreme Court in recent years.

“Legalizing these outposts would be a frontal assault on the Oslo accords and road map,” said Israeli attorney Michael Sfard, who represents Palestinian landowners and the anti-settlement group Peace Now.

“Because of the absence of a peace process and significant American pressure, ideas that only six months ago were unheard-of are becoming a political reality,” Sfard said. Israel is using the four outpost cases included in Netanyahu’s order last week as “trial balloons” to gauge international reaction, he said. “So far the silence from the international community is just fueling the right-wing radicalization process in the government.”

Netanyahu has defended the steps as legal and necessary to bolster Jewish communities in the West Bank. Government officials denied that their plans would violate the law or harm the peace process.

“If there is a legal solution or a possibility to legalize in certain places, then it will be done,” said government spokesman Ofir Gendelman. He denied that the plans would violate the law or harm the peace process.

“I don’t think we gave any promises to the Palestinians regarding outposts,” Gendelman said, despite Israel’s agreement under the road map to dismantle some outposts. “We have always made clear that settlements are an issue that can be resolved through negotiation.”

He stressed that so far the policy affects only a few outposts, none included in the 2002 pledge. Most of those outposts are still standing.

The government first laid out the principles of its outpost policy in court filings over the last year. Before that, a succession of Israeli governments had lacked a clear, consistent strategy for coping with the sites.

In January, Netanyahu appointed a special committee to investigate the issue of outposts and make recommendations.

Aides said the prime minister was pursuing a strategy that involves legalizing outposts on land where no Palestinians have proved ownership. In cases where outposts are deemed to be located on private Palestinian land, the government is seeking voluntary relocation agreements with settlers and offering to move them at its expense to nearby land, often near existing settlements.

In the case of Migron, the government hopes to move about 50 families to land about a mile away. A similar agreement was made in December to move about half a dozen trailers in Ramat Gilad and reclassify the outpost as part of a nearby settlement.

Critics call the plan a shell game that will result in new settlements.

Anti-settlement expert Dror Etkes, who has advised the Palestinian Authority and others, credited the lawsuits in Israeli courts for pushing the government to finally take action on illegal outposts and clarify its stance. But the outpost opponents’ efforts might backfire, he said, if the government’s new tactics result in a net gain of settlements.

He predicted that in Migron, for example, settlers would move to a nearby temporary location first and ultimately a third permanent site, and the government is pledging nearly $7 million to build them new homes and roads.

“We could just end up with more settlements overall,” Etkes said, adding that he doubted that the original Palestinian landowners would ever regain their property. “Sometimes you might find yourself in a position where you win legally but lose politically.”