Israel’s Cabinet affirmed Sunday that it will dismantle 24 illegal West Bank settlement outposts, but the ministers did not give a deadline and evaded a decision on the fate of 81 more outposts, participants said.
During their weekly meeting, ministers were briefed on an official report that said successive governments helped build and expand 105 outposts over the past decade. The Cabinet adopted the report, including recommendations that new laws be passed to make it easier to dismantle outposts in the future.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Cabinet ministers he was committed to removing outposts as part of an internationally backed peace plan, but he did not say whether he was ready to dismantle all 105.
The United States and the Palestinians have demanded the outposts, seen as seeds of larger settlements, be dismantled immediately.
Meanwhile, security officials said thousands more Israeli soldiers will be sent to the Gaza Strip to dismantle Jewish settlements this summer, after Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz decided to cut the evacuation time from the initial three months to one month.
Also Sunday, Israel’s military chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon announced plans to build a temporary fence separating Jerusalem from the West Bank by July, leaving the structure in place while legal challenges to a permanent barrier play out in court.
Israel says the structure is needed to protect its cities from suicide bombers. But the Palestinians criticize the barrier, which juts into the West Bank, as an illegal confiscation of land they claim for an independent state.
Settlers established the outposts — usually starting with a few mobile homes, a generator and a water tank — in the past decade to break up Palestinian areas and prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.
Under the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, Israel promised to remove outposts established after Sharon came to power in March 2001. According to the official report on the outposts, 24 were established after that date, while 71 were built before 2001. In 10 cases, it is not known when they were set up.
Fate of remaining outposts
In Sunday’s meeting, the Cabinet said Israel would dismantle the outposts set up after March 21. A ministerial committee is to determine the fate of the remaining outposts.
U.S. officials say they expect Israel to eventually remove all the outposts. Successive Israeli governments have promised not to establish new settlements on lands claimed by the Palestinians for a future state, and outposts were seen as a way around that promise.
At the Cabinet meeting Sunday, Sharon said “the dismantling of the unauthorized outposts is part of the Israeli commitment within the road map.”
Sharon commissioned the study, conducted over six months by a former state prosecutor, Talia Sasson. His critics have said the study was largely a ploy to divert U.S. pressure over the outposts. For most of his political career, Sharon was the main force in expanding Jewish settlements. In 1998, as foreign minister, he exhorted settlers to seize hilltops and build more outposts.
Sasson described systematic deception by government ministries and authorities in funneling millions of dollars to the outposts. However, the report stopped short of blaming Sharon or other leading politicians, who settlers say gave them support and money for outposts in the past decade.
Her recommendations included new legislation that would allow the government to seize mobile homes in outposts and make illegal construction in the West Bank a criminal offense.
Disagreement over timetable
Cabinet ministers were at odds Sunday over how soon outposts should be dismantled.
Communications Minister Dalia Yitzik from the moderate Labor Party said setting a ministerial committee amounted to stalling. “These outposts are blatantly illegal,” she told Israel Radio. “Israel has to evacuate them ... for its own good, not for the Americans.”
However, ministers from Sharon’s hard-line Likud Party said Israel should take its time. Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said Israeli soldiers would be busy with the planned dismantling of all Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank this summer, and that the removal of outposts should wait.
Education Minister Limor Livnat, also from Likud, said Israel is only required to dismantle the outposts established after March 2001 and should not volunteer to remove the others.
Sasson, however, told Cabinet ministers Sunday there was no difference between outposts founded before and after March 2001, Israeli Radio reported. In her report, she said all outposts were illegal.
About 235,000 Israeli settlers live in some 150 veteran settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. About 2,000 live in the outposts, according to the Israeli settlement watchdog group Peace Now.
Meanwhile, security officials said 3,000 additional soldiers would be sent to Gaza, bringing to 27,000 the number of security personnel to take part in the operation. Defense officials said Mofaz wanted to make it harder for Jewish extremists to disrupt the pullout.