Talia Sasson slams 'continued gov't inaction'

Tells 'Post': The gov't has known about this for two and a half years, and has done nothing.

ofra settlement 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ofra settlement 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Defense Ministry has done little to halt illegal settler construction and has demolished only three percent of the unauthorized structures in the West Bank over the last decade, Peace Now said Tuesday. According to a report by the organization, 3,449 demolition orders have been issued by the Civil Administration against unauthorized settler construction over a nine-year period - from the start of 1997 until March of 2007 - of which only 107 were executed. Another 171 structures were voluntarily taken down, but that number is deceptive because in some cases the buildings were simply moved to other unauthorized areas within the West Bank, said the grassroots group, which monitors construction activity over the Green Line. The report is based primarily on material Peace Now obtained at the end of November only after it sued the Civil Administration under the Freedom of Information Act for information on illegal building and demolition orders in Judea and Samaria. Defense Minister Ehud Barak's spokesman had no comment on the report, and the Civil Administration, which has oversight on illegal construction in Judea and Samaria, did not respond to repeated phone calls. Included in the 3,449 reports of unauthorized construction are 1,934 caravans, 606 permanent buildings, 325 building starts, 133 roads and 451 other structures, including nine cellular antennas from Cellcom, Pelephone and Partner. Speaking on behalf of those three companies, the Israel Cellular Forum refused to directly address the charge that those antennas were under demolition orders and instead said that it worked closely with the Civil Administration. Much attention has been given in the past few years to the 105 unauthorized outposts built since 1995 that must be removed according to the road map, a document revitalized at last week's Annapolis conference. But Peace Now said those hilltop communities make up only 44.66 percent of the unauthorized construction, whereas 54.13% of the illegal structures chronicled in its report were in the settlements themselves. "Now we have proof of illegal building in the settlements," said Hagit Ofran, who heads the organization's Settlement Watch Team. The 606 unauthorized permanent structures in the Peace Now report represent only a small fraction of the 26,172 legal housing units built overall in Judea and Samaria from the start of 1997 until the end of 2006, according to figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics. But Ofran said that number was deceptive when compared with the housing units listed by the bureau, because it was impossible to determine if those structures were homes or entire apartment buildings. "This is just a drop in the bucket," Peace Now Director-General Yariv Oppenheimer told reporters at a Jerusalem press conference. It is also impossible to know the real figures of illegal construction, said Ofran, because since 1998, the area's IDF commander has limited the scope of the Civil Administration's monitoring mandate, which is charged with determining legality and issuing demolition orders in Judea and Samaria. The Peace Now report came as no surprise to attorney Talia Sasson, who in her March 2005 report on settler construction warned the government that thousands of demolition orders had not been acted upon. "All this information was given to the government two-and-a-half years ago, and it is a shame that until today nothing has been done," said Sasson. According to the Peace Now report, some 72% of the demolition orders were issued in areas outside of the security fence, compared to 27.4% within the fence. The largest number of violations in the report - 48.7%, relating to 1,681 incidents - is under the jurisdiction of the Binyamin Regional Council, which until last week was headed by long-time settler leader Pinhas Wallerstein. Within the Binyamin region, Ofra had 196 demolition orders issued, and Beit El 107. But not all the worst offenders were in that region. For example, there were 56 cases filed against Alon Shvut in the Gush Etzion region. Wallerstein said he was not surprised by the report and blamed the illegal construction on the freeze in new construction permits in his region. In the last four or five years, the Defense Ministry has not approved new construction projects in the area of the Binyamin Regional Council, he said. There is legal construction going on in the area, said Wallerstein's replacement, Avi Ro'eh, but that is based on old permits and does not satisfy the growth needs of the area. "There is a saying that if everything is forbidden, then everything is permitted," Wallerstein told The Jerusalem Post. To clarify, he said that some of the unauthorized construction referenced by Peace Now referred to projects that had all the necessary statutory approvals, but on which the Defense Ministry had not signed off for political reasons. "If the government thinks that building will stop if it doesn't authorize it, they are mistaken," said Wallerstein. He accused Peace Now of being racist in issuing a report that focused solely on illegal Jewish activity in the West Bank without calculating the unauthorized construction in Arab areas on either side of the Green Line, including in the Negev. Even as Peace Now called on the government to stop illegal construction, thousands of settlers and right-wing activists were planning to create eight new unauthorized outposts in the West Bank in a massive demonstration slated for Sunday, the fifth day of Hanukka. Among their rallying points was the controversial area of E-1, which is within the boundaries of the city of Ma'aleh Adumim. "In Annapolis, they declared that once again they want to rip apart the land of Israel and to disconnect the people of Israel from its biblical homeland. We have to go on the offensive," said Nadia Matar, who is part of Women in Green and the umbrella group Eretz Yisrael Faithful, which is organizing the eight-point demonstration. "We want to show our government and the world that this land belongs to the Jewish people and they have no right to give it away," she said. "We are going to build and expand." It is particularly important to do it on Hanukka, which is a holiday that celebrates the victory of the Jews over their internal and external enemies in the land of Israel, Matar said.