To return to the new Peace Now website click here.

Settlements in Focus - Vol. 2, Issue 9: "Is Olmert Getting Serious About Outposts"

Settlements in Focus Is Olmert Getting Serious About Outposts? (Vol.2, Issue 9) A publication of Americans for Peace Now What has Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said regarding his commitment to deal with outposts? ...

Settlements in Focus

Is Olmert Getting Serious About Outposts? (Vol.2, Issue 9)

A publication of Americans for Peace Now

What has Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said regarding his commitment to deal with outposts?

Prime Minister Olmert has said very little about outposts, other than to reiterate his commitment to the Road Map (under which Israel is required to evacuate outposts established after March 2001) and his promise to honor the commitments of the previous government. On May 7th, during the new government's first cabinet meeting, Olmert stated, in the context of illegal settler actions in Hebron, "Wherever the law is violated, wherever there is illegal squatting and wherever there are attempts to determine these kinds of facts, we will respond immediately, without compromise."

It should be recalled that during his tenure as Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon repeatedly promised President Bush that he would evacuate illegal outposts. He eventually produced a list of 24 outposts that he promised would be evacuated under the terms of the Road Map (although at the time Peace Now's Settlement Watch program had catalogued the existence of more than 50 such outposts). Action on that promise was then deferred, first to allow for implementation of Israel's disengagement from Gaza, and again later, with the onset of the Israeli and Palestinian election campaigns and the melee that surrounded the court-ordered evacuation of part of the Amona outpost. Now, there are no longer any reasons for further delaying on the issue.

Has anything else happened to indicate the Olmert government's intentions regarding outposts?

Members of Olmert's government have taken actions and made statements that seem to indicate a clear commitment to deal - at least to some degree - with the issue:

- On June 4th, 2006, Shimon Peres, Vice Prime Minister and Minister for the Development of the Negev, Galilee and Regional Economy, told Voice of Israel radio: "I believe that removal of the outposts will happen in a matter of weeks."

- In May 18th, 2006, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, under the direction of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, signed evacuation orders for 12 outposts in the West Bank, thus renewing the evacuation order for the new government's term and allowing the immediate clearing of the 12 unauthorized sites (although without setting a date for the evacuations). Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz had originated the order, but failed to evacuate the outposts. It is worth noting that the decision to sign the orders appeared to come in response to a Peace Now petition to the High Court demanding that the court obligate the state to evacuate a number of illegal outposts for which evacuation orders have been issued but never executed (for more details, see the Peace Now report).

- In May 2006, the Olmert Government handed down demolition orders (actually re-issuances of existing orders) for 18 structures in the illegal outpost of Havat Ma'on (south of Hebron). Reportedly, Havat Ma'On is one of a total of 24 illegal outposts that the government intends to evacuate. The Olmert Government has reportedly made clear to the settlers its seriousness about evacuating all 24 outposts.

- In May 2006, the Israeli cabinet appointed Justice Minister Haim Ramon to head a ministerial committee tasked with implementing some of the recommendations made by Talia Sasson in her report on illegal outposts, specifically, recommendations to prevent the establishment of more illegal outposts in the future. Ramon clarified that the committee would not deal with the evacuation of illegal outposts. That, he explained, was the responsibility of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The committee, which convened for the first time on June 4th (following a meeting between Ramon and settler leaders on May 28th), is actually the revival of a committee headed by then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, set up after Sasson submitted her comprehensive report in March 2005. In that report, Sasson found that there were at least 105 illegal outposts, of which only 26 were built entirely on state land, 15 were built on privately owned Palestinian land, and the rest were built on land whose ownership status was unclear. Sasson also found that government ministries and other bodies had worked together to fund the illegal outposts, provide land, build housing and public buildings, and provide roads, electricity, and water. Ramon said that much of the government support for illegal outposts has continued since Sasson's report was published, and pledged to "change the law and ministry regulations to prevent the transfer of more funds to illegal outposts."

Does this appear to be a serious commitment?

Yes, the current commitment to deal with illegal outposts appears more serious than those made in the past, bearing in mind that in Israel - like everywhere - political promises flow much more easily than action. That said, the commitment of the Olmert Government appears more serious than previous commitments. At no time in the past has the government - via various officials and representatives - made so many and such specific undertakings with respect to the dismantling of outposts.

Has the government indicated how many outposts it plans to deal with?

The government has indicated that it will dismantle only the 24 outposts which it has identified as having been constructed after March 2001, plus a few other outposts whose inhabitants are known for their violent behavior. As noted earlier, this number is not consistent with the observations of the Peace Now Settlement Watch team, which has identified at least 51 outposts which were established after March 2001 and therefore should be dismantled immediately in the context of Israel's commitments under the Road Map. In addition, there are another 47 outposts established before March 2001 which are also illegal and therefore should be dismantled.

It has also been reported that the government is trying to convince the settlers to cooperate with the evacuations by offering promises for a mutually-agreed compromise regarding the remaining illegal outposts. At the same time, the Olmert government has asked for yet another study and review of these outposts - notwithstanding the fact that the Sasson report already confirmed that all of these outposts were established in violation of the law. Importantly, the new review will take into account various considerations totally unrelated to the legality of the outposts' establishment, including proximity to the settlement blocs (hinting that outposts located close to settlement blocs will be permitted to remain and incorporated into the blocs), the status of the land on which an outpost was established (hinting that outposts where the land is not registered to Palestinian owners may be allowed to remain in place), the number of inhabitants, and the length of time the outpost has been in existence (hinting that settlers may be rewarded in cases where their illegal actions have resulted in more thriving outposts).

Is the U.S. pressuring Olmert on outposts?

While outposts do not appear to have made it onto the agenda of the Bush-Olmert summit, it nonetheless appears that American pressure regarding outposts will continue, with the U.S. expecting Olmert to make good on the commitments of the Sharon government. As stated by one Israeli government source, "It is impossible to draw the matter out for much longer. We no longer have any excuses not to dismantle the 24 outposts."

At the same time, the Olmert government does not have the same room to maneuver as Sharon had on this issue. Implementation of Olmert's "convergence plan" is controversial and if it does happen, it is a long way off. Moreover, evacuation of outposts is consistent with the spirit of the convergence plan. And finally, while Sharon was able to delay action on outposts by calling for an investigation and report, Olmert inherits the Sasson Report and its very damning conclusions. Thus, Olmert cannot play for time in the same way that Sharon could, and cannot claim that there is not sufficient information to act.

Does Olmert have support from within his coalition for action against outposts?

With respect to his coalition, Olmert is in a very different position than Sharon. Where Sharon faced strong pressure from within his own coalition opposing any actions against settlers, Olmert faces strong pressure from within his own coalition in favor of action on outposts. Olmert brought in the Labor party as a main coalition partner. Within Labor there is strong support for action on outposts, and Labor members and supporters are watching to see if their representatives will be able to deliver as part of this coalition. Thus, there is strong pressure from Olmert from within his coalition to take action on outposts.

This pressure was reflected in the carefully negotiated coalition "Guidelines of the 31st Government of Israel", which state (among other things) that:

"The Government will act to prevent violence and to strengthen law-enforcement in general, and planning and construction laws in particular, in order to guarantee the integrity of the Government and the public's trust in it. The Government will act to uphold the commitments and decisions of the outgoing Government regarding the unauthorized outposts."

Does the Israeli body politic support action against outposts?

The successful disengagement from Gaza and the dismantling of a handful of settlements in the northern West Bank, as well as the evacuation of 9 houses in the illegal outpost of Amona, broke the taboo on evacuation of settlers and cleared the way in the Israeli body politic for further evacuations of outposts. As a result, it is hard to imagine that huge numbers of Israelis would take to the streets to demonstrate against the dismantling of an illegal outpost (or a regular settlement). At the same time, it is equally hard to imagine large numbers of Israelis mobilizing in support of evacuation of an outpost. Most Israelis don't really distinguish between settlements and outposts, and overall, they remain relatively oblivious to and uninterested in the situation in the West Bank, except insofar as it impacts their personal security.

Has Peace Now legal action had an impact?

The government appears to have learned its lesson from the Amona affair (in which a Peace Now petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice resulted in the court's forcing the State to take action and demolish nine houses). Namely, the government has come to understand that if it does not take action to enforce the law, the High Court may intervene. This lesson was demonstrated in the State's recent very revealing response to a petition filed by Peace Now in the High Court regarding two illegal outposts. Rather than defend itself against the petition, the State argued, effectively, that the Peace Now petition was moot, since the Israeli Civil Administration has launched an unprecedented initiative to map ALL illegal settlement outpost structures in the West Bank, in order to draft a plan for the demolition of those structures. The plan, which once complete will be presented to the political echelons, is expected to take up to four months to finish. Peace Now welcomed the news.

Are there some geographic areas where he does not plan to deal with outposts (e.g., near settlement blocs)?

Most outposts are located on the east side of Israeli's West Bank security barrier. This makes sense, given that the outposts are the creation of the most ideological settlers, settlers who traditionally have targeted the West Bank heartland, as well as some isolated locations far from the Green Line. As a result, of the 24 outposts on the chopping block, all but two of them are located to the east of the route of the security barrier. It has been rumored that settler leaders and government officials have explored some sort of compromise, wherein these more isolated outposts would be sacrificed by the settlers in exchange for preserving the outposts located near settlement blocs or the Green Line. Settler leaders, however, have vehemently denied that there is any such agreement.

How many outposts are there at present?

Peace Now's Settlement Watch recently released its report for January-March 2006. Settlement Watch found that during this period no illegal outposts were either evacuated or established, and that as of then end of March 2006, there were 102 outpost sites in the West Bank. Peace Now's Settlement Watch also found that significant building and development work continued apace at 28 outposts, including the construction of permanent houses and other structures, the addition of mobile homes, building a transmission tower, establishing greenhouses, and paving a new road. As reported by Settlements Watch head Dror Etkes,

"In the first quarter of 2006, the State of Israel continued to ignore its commitment both in the area of enforcing the law against its citizens living in the West Bank and in the political and international context in which Israel is committed to evacuate the outposts created after March 2001. None of that was done. A closer examination of the location of the outposts where growth occurred in the past months shows activity is not concentrated in a particular area in the West Bank, but all over the West Bank. That shows again that the authorities' enforcement failure in the West Bank does not characterize certain areas or districts. It is an overall and ongoing failure."

For more details about outposts in general, see: Settlements in Focus, Vol. 2, Issue 2.

How are settlers reacting to the likelihood of outpost evacuations?

Settlers are, not surprisingly, concerned about possible evacuation of outposts. That said, there does not appear to be unanimity among the settlers over how to respond, with some of the same schisms that developed over Sharon's disengagement initiative once again coming to the fore.

Refusal to Serve: Within the religious leadership of the settlers a battle is raging behind those calling for soldiers serving in the IDF to refuse orders, and those distancing themselves from these positions. Even within the first category, nuances are developing between those rabbinic leaders who call for respect for the State (even while calling on people to refuse orders), and those who increasingly view the state as wholly illegitimate. A recent pamphlet distributed in synagogues in Israel and in West Bank settlements reflected this developing internal conflict among the settlers. Signed by a number of leading rabbis in the religious-nationalist (settler) camp, it states that ".We will not allow ourselves to be dragged into a civil war; we will not raise our hand against our brother. The State of Israel is the actual manifestation of the Jewish People's sovereignty in its Land. It has its shortcomings, but above all, it is the sanctification of G-D's name in the very fact of the return of the Jewish People as a living nation in its land.If we are told, in the name of the State or the army, to violate a Torah commandment, even a minor one, we will not listen."

Resort to Violence: Some settlers appear to be prepared to launch an all-out battle against any evacuations of outposts or settlements. A May 5th article in Ha'artez newspaper reported that at a celebration at an outpost near the extremist settlement of Yitzhar, there were leaflets - signed by a hitherto unknown group calling itself "La'akev Ve'limnoa" ("Delay and Prevent") - sketching out three scenarios for resisting future evacuations of outposts and settlements. On June 14th, the online version of Yediot Ahronoth, carried a similar story, reporting on the presence of the same leaflets at an assembly organized to honor a right-wing IDF soldier who gained national attention earlier this year when he refused, on ideological grounds, to shake hands with the IDF Chief of Staff. The YNet article quotes extensively from the flyer, laying out the following scenarios for action.

Scenario one (the Amona scenario): "Expulsion forces come in black, and this time with more determination and less sensitivity. Again, thousands of settlers and people from the orange community (the color chosen to represent anti-pullout sentiments), hole up in settlements designated for agitation. The dominant mood is that at the height of the (agitation) at Kfar Darom. Not a hand is raised in violence. The struggle is obstinate. Clubs, horses, water hoses. Thousands of wounded and a media frenzy. The process is delayed for a few days, but in the end is completed. Public frustration rises and a mood of bitterness and wretchedness (this time we really won't forgive) dominates."

Scenario two (defensive attack): "The lesson from how things happened from Kfar Meimon to Kfar Darom has been learned. No longer will we rely on `authorized' leadership, which accepts the government's edicts and deteriorates along with it to devastation. If the defense forces have become an army of destruction of expulsion, than it is an enemy by every definition. Initiated defense centers have been established in every settlement. Youth are signing up on volunteer lists and are deploying in the field. Organized plans are being put together, equipment is being collected. The method - the best defense is to attack,' the flyers proclaims. It details the strategies: `Groups are going out initiating activities to delay and prevent delivery of army materials. Thousands of pierced Jeep tires, dozens of trucks on fire. an anonymous hacker infiltrates military computers and sends destructive viruses to disrupt computerized processes, logistical records go up in flames,' and more." [Ha'aretz also notes that the plan includes "laxatives are found in the water tanks on military bases."]

Scenario three (country-wide chaos): "Similarly organizing, but less controlled, centers of friction between Jews and Arabs are established. A group of youth with responsible vision and initiative, who understand that the government's conduct is anarchy, go to the villages at night and make merry with the enemy's property. Violence breaks out in Lod, Ramle, Jaffa, Haifa, Wadi Ara and the Galilee. Flyers threatening against Israeli Arabs are handed out in cities. The fire is lit and Arabs inside the Green Line break out in a third Intifada. The expulsion plan is off the agenda and delayed until further notice."

YNet also notes that at the end of the flyer there is a disclaimer stating "This material is for thought only (not, God forbid, for action...).

How much does this extremism reflect the sentiments of most settlers?

Ha'aretz notes that "most residents of Yitzhar's six outposts reject this course of action [the three scenarios], but some admit that they have no control over the youths and sympathize with them in part." The article quotes one prominent outpost resident, Yehuda Liebeman, stating "I am not calling on anyone to follow this path, but the sentiments as expressed in these leaflets - the work of our youth perhaps - I understand well, and sometimes identify with. They [the government of Israel] have declared war on us, and there are two alternatives - either we accept the decree, like Gush Katif, or we go out and do battle, without of course any harm to anyone [sic]. How exactly this battle should be waged requires review and consideration."

With respect to the numbers of settlers that ascribe to the most extreme views, a March 26th report in Yediot Ahronoth magazine profiled the "givonim" (Hebrew for the "hilltop people") - the next generation of the "hilltop youth," now married with children of their own. As summarized in Americans for Peace Now's Middle East Peace Report:

".They don't think of themselves as part of the State of Israel, nor do they believe that they should obey its laws.the most significant difference is their attitude toward violence: the Givonim view themselves as fighting for the Land of Israel, and in this battle, as they see it, violence is permissible against anyone who stands in their way: policemen, soldiers, and certainly Palestinian `gentiles.' Their attitude towards settler leaders and the Settlers Council is much better: they receive the assistance they need, and in return are content to display quiet contempt. The police and the GSS are aware of these extreme views, and the Central Unit of the West Bank District Police have even formed a special unit that is supposed to deal with the threat-a Special Intelligence Team-but as a detective in the unit admits, it is nearly impossible to infiltrate their ranks, and there have been very few successes.

"... The accepted estimate is that there are several hundred of them in the West Bank, but it is difficult to pinpoint their precise number. Most of them live in illegal settlement outposts and in several settlements, mainly Yitzhar.A police officer said, `The hilltop population has several unique characteristics. Many of them come from well-to-do national religious homes, and therefore they can ask their parents for financial support. They have very strong family ties among themselves, and there is also a connection with the Jewish settlement in Hebron. They move around a lot: they can live in the southern Hebron hills for a few weeks, and then move to Yitzhar or to Arusi's hilltop [outpost]. They are anarchists and anti-establishment.They are arrested four or five times a year, some for possession of soft drugs. Our detectives try to go to their outposts and show a presence, and this doesn't always pass quietly. About a year ago, a patrol car entered Arusi's outpost with an arrest warrant for one of the residents. The detectives chased the suspect, who managed to get away. When they returned to their vehicle, they found that all four of the patrol car's tires had been punctured.' When one of the Givorim was asked about their vandalism of olive trees, he replied, `It is not ideal, it is mainly about punishing. If an Arab screws me, I take down his trees. If you beat the living daylights out of an Arab, he will sit down on the floor for five minutes, cry, and then get up. But if you chop down his trees, slaughter his sheep, and demolish his house, he will freak out. That is what the Israelis don't understand.'"

What will Olmert need to do in order to have the authority to evacuate/demolish outposts? Will every case require protracted court actions, like we saw in Amona?

There is no doubt that the settlers will take all steps they can think of try to prevent or postpone the dismantling of any outpost, including exhausting every possible avenue for legal action.

Given the Amona experience, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the settlers would achieve a lasting victory in the High Court ("victory" meaning the overturning of a demolition order or a court order barring the State from carrying out a demolition order). However, it is quite possible that the settlers will manage to significantly delay government action, in the process extracting a high cost from the Israeli taxpayer, who will ultimately foot the bill for all of this pointless legal action.

What is Peace Now doing in terms of ongoing/new lawsuits regarding settlements, and what role do/will these play in pressuring Olmert to make good on his commitments?

Israel is a democracy and subject to the rule of law. Peace Now will continue to press the government of Israel to execute its obligation to enforce the law with respect to outposts and settlements. As necessary, this may continue to involve Peace Now petitions to the Israeli High Court of Justice. In the past, Peace Now has been forced to resort to such legal action because all other efforts have failed to move the government to meets its obligations to enforce the law and its own rulings - cases where the government has admitted that the actions of the settler construction was illegal and had issued demolition orders, but refused to implements its own orders.

As noted earlier, the Peace Now's success in petitioning the Israeli High Court of Justice in the Amona case - where Peace Now protested the government's failure to implement the law and demolish nine illegal structures in that outpost - changed the rules of the game (for more details of the Amona case, see: Settlements in Focus, Vol 1, Issue 6 and Settlements in Focus, Vol 2, Issue 3. Since Amona, Peace Now has submitted two additional petitions to the Israeli High Court regarding outposts.

Peace Now is hopeful that the government's recent response to a Peace Now petition to the High Court - when it argued that the petition was no longer relevant, since it was preparing to take comprehensive action against the outposts - indicates a fundamental change in the government's attitude toward illegal settler construction and marks the beginning of serious and effective law enforcement. If this is indeed the case, and the government is seriously implementing its obligations to enforce the rule of law, then Peace Now will hopefully no longer be forced to resort to legal action to compel it to do so. If it turns out that the government is not serious about enforcing the rule of law with respect to outposts, then Peace Now will likely be forced to continue to take these cases to the High Court.

Produced by Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director, Peace Now (Israel) &

Lara Friedman, Government Relations Director, Americans for Peace Now