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Outpost Backgrounder

The following report on illegal Israeli outposts is based on several editions of "Settlements in Focus", a semi-monthly publication co-produced by Peace Now and Americans for Peace Now.

What is an "outpost"?

An outpost is a new Jewish settlement - or a proto-settlement - built in the occupied territories without prior legal approval from the Israeli government.

For years settlers have used the establishment of outposts as a mechanism to stake out new territory, expand settlement boundaries, create contiguity between veteran settlements, and establish facts on the ground that will make it more difficult to reach a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Many outposts have eventually received retroactive permission from the Israeli government to become legal settlements under Israeli law.

The U.S.-backed "Road Map" to Middle East peace, which Israel endorsed, required Israel to immediately dismantle outposts that were established since March 2001. Prime Minister Sharon, Prime Minister Olmert and other senior Israeli officials have repeatedly promised President Bush that they will fulfill this obligation.

The outposts phenomenon is linked to a commitment undertaken in 1996 by the Israeli government, then led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, that no new settlements would be established in the West Bank. Since that time, successive Israeli governments have promised to honor this commitment. However, throughout this period, and continuing to the present day, this official commitment has been circumvented with policies that have permitted, encouraged, facilitated, and even financed the establishment of dozens of illegal outposts - in effect allowing the creations of dozens of new settlements all over the West Bank.

What are the settlers trying to achieve by establishing new outposts?

The purpose of the settlements has always been the same: to prevent contiguity between Palestinians towns and villages in the West Bank, while establishing a permanent Jewish presence on and claim to the land. Outposts are simply another tactic for achieving this goal. If permitted to remain in place and expand, the outposts will succeed in creating additional new settlement "blocs" deep inside the West Bank. In this way, settlers and their supporters hope to create a critical population mass to enhance the demand that these blocs - like the Etzion Bloc, the Modi'in Illit Bloc, and the Ariel bloc - be kept under Israeli sovereignty forever, thereby further complicating (if not rendering impossible) a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

How many outposts are there? Where are they located?

According to Peace Now's most recent tally, there are 103 outposts scattered throughout the West Bank, most of which are located east of the route of Israeli's West Bank security barrier. The majority of these are dispersed around and among the religious and   "ideological settlements" located in the heart of the central West Bank ridge.

When were the outposts established?

Over 50 outposts were established since Ariel Sharon became Prime Minister in March 2001. The remaining 40+ outposts were established earlier, mostly under the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel's current minister of Defense.

For information about all of the outposts, including when they were established, go HERE

For information about recent trends in outpost construction, go HERE

In addition, at various times the settlers have mounted organized campaigns to create many new outposts, including in June 2003 and December 2005. In these cases, the purpose of the campaign has apparently been to mobilize settlers and their supporters, draw the maximum amount of attention from the media, and make a political statement that outposts will not be dismantled easily. In general the outposts established during these campaigns have been "dummy" outposts that have lasted only the duration of the campaigns themselves.

Are the outposts thriving?

Every outpost that is not being dismantled, is growing and becoming more entrenched. In some cases this can mean something as little as a new dirt access road, water tower, or a couple of new families living in caravans (mobile homes); in others, it can be the construction of permanent infrastructure and houses (as in the case of Amona).

The outposts that are "thriving" - in the sense of attracting relatively large numbers of residents and financial investment - are the ones that are linked to the mainstream settlement leadership, known as the Yesha Council. In general, these outposts are located around veteran settlements like Ofra, Eli, Shilo, Ariel, or settlements in the Etzion Bloc. Of the remaining outposts, many have been established by second generation settlers who reject the middle class lifestyle of the veteran settlements and want to regain the "pioneer" lifestyle and spirit of the original settlers. Those living in such outposts are thus not seeking to build permanent, middle class houses. They apparently prefer to "rough it." While such outposts may thus appear less rooted than outposts like Amona, or less supported by the mainstream settler leadership, this appearance is probably more reflective of the preferences of the outpost's inhabitants, rather than some failure to attract residents or funds.

What is the Sasson Report?

In July 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked Talia Sasson, an attorney from the office of the Israeli Attorney General, to prepare a report on the issue of Israeli settlement outposts in the West Bank. Sasson was asked to study the size, location, characteristics, and date of establishment of existing outposts; the method of establishment of the outposts; and the role of government bodies in permitting and/or aiding the establishment of the outposts. She was also asked to make recommendations for changes to legislation and administrative or law-enforcement policies to prevent the establishment and continued activity of outposts and to assist in their evacuation.

Submitted in March 2005, Sasson's 340-page report presented a scathing indictment of the conduct of all Israeli governmental bodies active in the West Bank - including the Israeli Police, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Civil Administration, and the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Housing, and the World Zionist Organization's Settlements Division - and the systematic abrogation of their responsibilities to abide by or enforce the law. The report also confirmed the active collusion and collaboration of some elements of these agencies in the illegal actions of the settlers. Sasson noted that "it seems that the lawbreaking has become institutionalized and institutional."

Her report stated:

"The 'engine' behind a decision to establish outposts are regional councils in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, settlers and activists, imbued with ideology and motivation to increase Israeli settlement in the Judea, Samaria and Gaza territories. Some of the officials working in the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization, and in the Ministry of Construction & Housing, cooperated with them to promote the unauthorized outposts phenomenon. These actions were apparently inspired by different Ministers of Housing in the relevant times, either by overlooking or by actual encouragement and support, with additional support from other Ministries, initiated either by officials or by the political echelon of each Ministry.

"The result was that the executive echelon, so to speak, became the deciding echelon, with no authorization, in contrary to government resolutions, bearing no political or public responsibility, which by nature of things rests upon the political echelon. All of this with massive financing by the State of Israel, with no appropriate transparency, no criteria.

"The establishment of unauthorized outposts violates standard procedure, good governing rules, and especially (constitutes) an ongoing bold law violation. Furthermore, the State authorities speak two voices. Sometimes grant, and sometimes prevent. Rules have become flexible. One hand builds outposts, the other invests money and force to evacuate them. These actions were not done by individuals only. The problem is (that) State and public authorities took part in breaking the law. They are the ones who financed construction without a resolution by the political echelon, in contrary to government resolutions, with no legal planning status, sometimes not on State owned land, sometimes on private Palestinian property or on survey land. State authorities and public authorities broke the laws, regulations and rules made by the State."

The official summary of the Sasson Report is available HERE.

What were the recommendations of the Sasson Report and were they implemented?

Sasson concluded her report with recommendations she categorized into several classes:

Budgetary and organizational considerations, Reform of Israeli Government orders, Administrative decisions to be adopted by state agencies, Amendment to existing legislation to clarify the government's authority to punish law breakers associated with the establishment of outposts, Reform of martial law (since the West Bank is classified as an occupied area, the law Israel applies there derives from military orders), and Recommendation to the state persecutor.

Included in Sasson's report was a recommendation that all outposts built on Palestinian-owned land (she identified at least 15 such outposts) be dismantled immediately. In addition, she called for (among other things): terminating the activities of the WZO's Settlement Division under its present mandate; prohibiting the Housing Ministry from planning the establishment of a settlement or neighborhood in existing settlements without prior political approval; reconsidering the position of the Defense Minister's Assistant for Settlement Affairs; and prohibiting the defense minister from connecting outposts to electricity and water supplies. In making these recommendations, Sasson noted:

"The government must take into its hands responsibility for what is happening in the outposts in the territories and not sit on the sidelines watching as the settlers do whatever they want, without anyone stopping them. They are all illegal. It is important to emphasize that it's not merely to evacuate the outposts but to cease the entire procedure of budgeting and transferring state funds to the outposts. The very heart of the report is about the enforcement of the law, which is not a political issue, but a legal one, of tremendous importance for a democratic state."

On March 13th, 2005, in the context of its weekly meeting, the Israeli Cabinet dealt with the recommendations of the Sasson Report. The Cabinet subsequently nominated a committee of nine ministers, now headed by Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, to consider ways to implement some of the recommendations. This ministerial committee was tasked with presenting its own recommendations 90 days after it was created (i.e., June 2005).

As of January 2008, the committee has failed to reach decisions. No significant action has been taken based on the Sasson report's recommendations.  

Why doesn't the Israeli government remove the outposts?

There are both legal (settlers' challenges at the Supreme Court) and political reasons. The considerations of Olmert's government seem mostly political, though. They are:

Coalition politics: Olmert presides over an extremely broad coalition (in terms of ideology). One of the most important coalition partners is the far right-wing "Yisrael Beiteinu" party, with 11 members of Knesset - a party headed by Avigdor Lieberman, a settler himself and a fierce advocate of settler interests. Yisrael Beiteinu has repeatedly declared that as soon as one outpost is touched the party will leave the government [ironically, Lieberman is himself a member of the ministerial committee charged with dealing with the recommendations of the Sasson Report]. In addition, another important coalition partner is the Shas party, with 12 members of the Knesset. Shas opposes the Annapolis process and might also leave the coalition if Olmert takes action against outposts. 

Election politics: Olmert is no doubt aware that if his government falls, and particularly if it is perceived to have fallen as a result of steps he has taken in the peace process, the next election will almost certainly produce a government that will snuff out any serious hopes at a substantive renewal of negotiations. For Israeli politicians in the current government who have a genuine commitment to peace with the Palestinians, the fear that if their efforts fail once again the peace process will become "radioactive" politically likely weighs heavily upon them.

The right vs. the wrong moment for action: Given the complicated makeup of his coalition, it is likely that Olmert is tempted to adopt the logic of previous prime ministers: that it is better to refrain from upsetting the coalition over an interim step (like dismantling outposts) and instead focus his energy and stockpile his political capital for the "full deal," the peace-process' endgame. It should be recalled that this strategy was adopted by leaders before Olmert, including Rabin and Barak, without success. The Settlers as Spoilers: The settler movement has succeeded in convincing the Israeli public, and the politicians, that trying to remove any settler or settlement could well involve violence and a national trauma. In the past, settler opposition to evacuations has at times crossed the line separating legitimate protest from violence.