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Settlement Outposts, the Law and Politics

13 October 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

There are 109 settlement outposts (proto-settlements) in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) with a population of 1000 – 1200 residents, most of them young singles.  In Israel sharp debate is taking place concerning dismantling these caravan clusters or turning them into full-scale villages, depending on one’s point of view.  But first a few facts concerning legalities:

-          Many outposts sit on properties bought from West Bank Arabs, meaning privately held Jewish owned land.  (The western press does not do features on West Bank Arabs selling off lands to Jews at a hefty profit.  The former landowners then emigrate since it is a capital crime to sell lands to Jews – Jordanian law.)

-          Others were established within the municipal borders of an existing settlement even if they are outside the security fence and are therefore an extension of an existing entity.

-          Others are built on state lands, meaning undeveloped tracts belonging to no individual.  These lands were held by the Turks before WWI, the British until 1948, the Jordanians until 1967 and are under Israeli control today.  All conquered the area and had lands under direct government administration.  Whether they had the right to build on these lands is another question and this is part of the whole ‘settlement’ question between Israel and the Palestinians.

But even if all the lands are legally held, and here the answer may not be 100% since certain facts are not known, the point is that to build one needs government permits which many of these outposts lack.  The settler activists admit they do not need government approval since their rights come from the Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures) and G-d.  And here is the danger.  The majority of the messianic religious settler movement is law abiding while many these young ultra-radicals have little regard for man made laws in the Jewish state. 

Let us not forget than Yigal Amir also saw himself as answering to a Higher Authority when he assassinated prime minister Yitzchak Rabin in November 1995.

The outpost problem has grown to major proportions and drains off much military manpower due to guard duty and through the dismantling process.  Critics (generally from the Left) are correct, Defense Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer and those previously in his post (from Labor or the Likud) should have taken action the minute the first illegal outpost was established.  But unfortunately there are political considerations and the law falls by the wayside.  The right wing coalition parties favor these proto-settlements leaving law and order as a negotiating point.

The Judea and Samaria settlers try to justify themselves by claiming the Palestinians are constantly involved in illegal building.  This is most likely true, but Areas A’ and B’ are under full Palestinian Authority civil jurisdiction, meaning Israel has no right to deal in building codes.  Only Area C’ with its 1% of the total Palestinian population remains in Israeli hands after the Wye Agreements of 1998.

On the other hand the settlers took their cue in illegal building from Israeli Arab villagers generally from the Galilee and from the Beduin in the Negev.  There are tens of thousands of illegal structures in Israel, mainly in the Arab sector.  Often for political reasons such structures are made ‘legal’ by the government years later or the offenders are exonerated by the president to calm political and ethnic tensions.  In addition the Beduin occupy tens of thousands of dunam of Negev lands illegally.  Enforcing the law where Israeli Arabs are concerned becomes not only an internal political issue, but an international media event and thereby the authorities shy away from such confrontations.

The settlers began their ‘illegal’ building in 1974 with the advent of Gush Emmunim and one of the first government officials to give them lands against the wishes of then prime minister Yitzchak Rabin (first term) was his defense minister, Shimon Peres.  This was done not only for ideological reasons but for political purposes as well.  There were physical confrontations where settlers and soldiers clashed.  The army had all sorts of orders restricting their behavior and often lost.  Politically ‘illegal’ settlements became legal.

Today the political horse-trading continues.  Ben Eliezer cannot upset his right wing coalition partners too much if he wants to remain defense minister.  On the other hand he cannot lose the Labor party leadership and continue in office.  So the compromise is to evacuate a few outposts.

As for the settlers, they know as do Israeli Arabs than if you represent a politically explosive issue, ‘illegal’ will become legal eventually.  This all undercuts the rule of law and leads Israeli society towards anarchy.

But the most radical settlers see the law as secondary at best.  Their aim is to effectively scuttle any possibility of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians which would split the Land of Israel between the two peoples. 

Their possibility of succeeding should not be underestimated.