JERUSALEM – Settler leaders on Tuesday painted a picture of widespread state complicity in setting up unauthorized West Bank (search) settlement outposts, contradicting Israel's (search) repeated claim that it is trying to dismantle dozens of outposts in line with an internationally backed peace plan.
The settler leaders confirmed reported findings of a government-sponsored report on the outposts that is to be released Wednesday. Excerpts were published Tuesday in the Maariv daily. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) aides declined comment, but a news conference on the report was to be held in Sharon's office Wednesday.
The outposts dotting the West Bank are widely seen as seeds of larger communities, in violation of assurances by successive Israeli governments that they would not build new settlements. Locations were often chosen to break up contiguity of Palestinian areas and prevent the establishment of a future Palestinian state.
U.S. officials said Tuesday they expect Israel to live up to its obligation under the "road map" peace plan to dismantle outposts.
Zvi Hendel, a settler leader and legislator, said Tuesday that various government ministries and agencies have cooperated over the years in setting up outposts. He told Israel Radio that the Israeli military administration in the West Bank provided the lands, the Housing Ministry bought mobile homes, Defense Ministry officials gave permits for trailers to be moved from place to place, (and) the army provided security for the setters.
"You know well when a state doesn't want something to happen it doesn't happen— and certainly when the land is in control of the military and when a state allows for things to happen, then they happen," Hendel said.
Hendel said the support for the outposts extended to the highest levels of government. Outposts originally began springing up in 1993, as a protest against an interim peace deal with the Palestinians signed that year.
"All the defense ministers ... were part of the secret," he said. "You can't do it without the defense minister, you can't move mobile homes, you can't move a nail in the West Bank without the army's agreement. So let's not fool ourselves. This is what the State of Israel wanted. We carried out its mission."
Former Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, another settler leader, said not a single penny went where it wasn't meant to go. "The person who got the mobile homes had permits, and infrastructure, and electricity, and water," Levy told Israel Radio. "Do you think that something like this can happen behind the scenes?"
"It's possible there were flagrant violations that began with the prime minister, with the prime ministers, with the chiefs of staffs, the ministers, the attorney general," Levy said. "If all of these people are in violation, then that tells you it is government policy."
Hundreds of millions of shekels were spent on the unauthorized communities, he said.
"Such sums of money don't simply disappear from budgets," Levy said.
In 1998, Sharon, then the foreign minister, called on settlers to seize hilltops to prevent the handover of additional West Bank land to the Palestinians. Since becoming prime minister and accepting the road map plan in 2003, he has called for the dismantling of outposts. However, the Israeli military has dismantled only a few, and some were quickly rebuilt by settlers. The government argues it cannot move more decisively because of legal challenges by settlers. The government review of the outposts was conducted, in part, to respond to the challenges.
The frank comments by settler leaders, who generally decline to discuss settlement funding, appeared to be an attempt to settle scores with Sharon over his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements this summer.
The report on the outposts and the comments by the settler leaders are liable to cause tensions with the United States at a time when it hopes to build on momentum toward peacemaking in the Mideast.
Paul Patin, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, said "the government of Israel has commitments with respect to its road map obligations, and commitments that the prime minister gave to President Bush last year (to dismantle outposts), and we continue to expect Israel to abide by those commitments."
In the government-sponsored report on the outposts, former state prosecutor Talia Sasson described a government that repeatedly defied its own declared policy, Maariv said.
"The Ministry of Construction and Housing employed its architects, and funded the employment of outside architects in planning unauthorized outposts after they were set up, even though it knew there was no authorized decision by the government or the political echelon authorizing their establishment," Maariv cites Sasson as writing.
"Some of those unauthorized outposts were set up on private Palestinian land," Sasson added.
In 2003 alone, the ministry allocated 33 million shekels (US$7.6 million dollars, 5.8 million euros) to buy trailers for the West Bank - some of which were used for unauthorized outposts, Maariv quoted the report as saying.
Sasson's report, in part, reads like a how-to guide to setting up unauthorized outposts.
Set up an antenna, and that would "immediately require laying an electrical line to feed the antenna," Maariv said. "Then build a booth for the guard, then pave a dirt road and build infrastructure for the guard's booth. Then one day, the trailers and their inhabitants arrive, and the outpost becomes a fact on the ground."
Another tactic is to set up "educational institutions," an operation that requires residences for school faculty, who are none other than residents of the new unauthorized outpost," Maariv reported.
Hendel confirmed that money flowed to the illegal outposts with a wink and nod.
In one case, he said, he circumvented a Finance Ministry official's objection to budgeting additional money to buy mobile homes for the outposts by telling him to take the matter to Sharon's office.
"He came back to me within three days," Hendel said. "The entire budget was approved and it was given to the relevant ministries that have to carry out the work."