Israel is conducting a widespread evaluation of the legal status of settlement construction to come up with "carrots and sticks" to use in convincing settlement leaders to voluntarily evacuate illegal settlement outposts, The Jerusalem Post has learned. Committees have been set up in the Defense Ministry and the Civil Administration to map out all construction in the settlements. The overriding idea is to define whether construction in existing settlements is legal.
Background: The looming clash over outposts
This mapping out is designed in part to give the government "negotiating cards" with the settlers so it can then go to the settlement leaders and say that other neighborhoods they may want approved in various communities beyond the Green Line will receive approval only if the illegal outposts are evacuated.
The Defense Ministry has for months been engaged in negotiations with the heads of various communities beyond the Green Line regarding the possibility of voluntarily evacuating the illegal outposts.
Emily Amrusi, the spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, said talks have long been going on between the settlers and the government with an eye toward solving the outpost problem. She said such a solution would likely involve moving some outposts to other areas in the West Bank and legalizing others.
The survey currently underway would go a long way toward determining where these outposts could be moved. Both the government and the settlers are eager to avoid the kind of violence that accompanied the evacuation of the Amona outpost last year.
Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein said he would be interested in a compromise deal with the government as long as it had conditions he could live with. He said the best way for the settlements to move forward was to look for ways to cooperate with the government.
Goldstein said all discussions so far about an agreement regarding the outposts had been preliminary, adding: "We are far from any kind of agreement."
Although the process of mapping out the settlements started before Peace Now's report in November, which stated that approximetely 40 percent of the land on which the settlements were built was Palestinian land, the report provided an added impetus to getting this process to move forward.
The survey of settlement construction is taking place in tandem with government discussions about the recent permits given to build 30 housing units in the Maskiot settlement in the Jordan Valley, which only houses a pre-military religious school for 50 young men.
The Maskiot issue reflects ambiguity about what construction is permissible in the settlements. For the past few years, Israel's unstated policy has been that there would be no expansion of settlements beyond the built-up construction lines of individual settlements, but it would allow building for natural growth inside the existing construction lines of certain settlements. The road map, however, calls for a complete settlement freeze, including construction for natural growth.
Nevertheless, a letter from former prime minister Ariel Sharon's bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in April 2004, after the road map was adopted, implied that there were certain understandings with the US that allowed for Israel to build within the construction lines of settlements inside the large settlement blocs that Israel intended to hold on to under any future agreement.
The letter said efforts would be made to have a better definition of the construction lines of the settlements, implying that these lines were critical in determining where further building could take place.
The question being looked at now is whether some of the building inside the settlements' construction lines is illegal if it is on either disputed land or Palestinian land located within the boundaries of existing settlements.
In the Jordan Valley, for instance, the settlers have said it is permissible to build in Maskiot because it was first authorized as a settlement in 1982, thus such construction does not constitute a new use of the site. They have said that all planned construction would take place adjacent to the school and within those formally approved lines.
But the question being asked in various committees is whether the building inside the settlement is taking place on Israeli-owned government land, Palestinian land or disputed land.
This new assessment of the situation in the settlements is taking place amid a feeling inside the government that there has been a lack of definition as to what has constituted legal and illegal building inside the settlements for the past 25 years.
Roughly speaking, land in the Israeli-controlled area of the West Bank - Area C - can be divided up into land that is outright Israel-owned property, the vast majority of which is categorized as government land; land that is outright Palestinian-owned property; and land whose ownership is in dispute.
While many of the settlements' perimeters have been built on government land, some of the settlements contain land inside the outer construction lines that is either Palestinian owned or is in dispute.
A State Department official, who would not relate to the specifics of Israel's evaluation of the status of the settlements, said the US position was "to support full implementation of the road map." The official said the road map remained "the only agreed international basis upon which to move forward toward the goal of two democratic states - Israel and Palestine - living side by side in peace and security. Under the road map, both sides have obligations. The Palestinians must renounce terror and violence, prevent terror attacks and dismantle terrorist infrastructure. Israel must also abide by its obligations and remove unauthorized outposts and halt the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank."
Peace Now's spokesman Yaariv Oppenheimer said his organization knew that discussions on this matter were underway but did not have specific information about them. He said any deal that involved construction in the territories was "unacceptable."
From an ideological and a legal perspective, Peace Now does not believe that Israel should be in the territories, Oppenheimer said. All that would happen under such a proposal is that a caravan would be moved from one place to another, he said.
"We think that is something the government should not do. You cannot give a prize to people who broke the law," said Oppenheimer. It would prove to them that outpost construction was a good way to achieve their objective and would inspire them to build more.
Oppenheimer also said a widespread agreement on the illegal outposts with the settlers would sanction violence as an effective means of protest because it would give the government the appearance of making this deal as a way to avoid further violent conflict similar to what happened when the security forces demolished nine homes at the Amona outpost.
"It is saying that the people who made this huge provocation in Amona and acted violently eventually got what they wanted," he said. "The government is afraid to confront them."
Gush Etzion's Goldstein responded to this reasoning by saying it was "symptomatic of the divisions that exist within Israeli society that the Left appears willing to pay a high price to appease the Palestinians but are not willing to give anything to the settlers. If the Left wants to have peace with the Arabs, then it should want to have peace with the Jews," he said.
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report.