Israel panel backs legalizing West Bank outposts

Associated Press Modified: July 9, 2012 at 1:31 pm •  Published: July 9, 2012
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JERUSALEM (AP) — A government-commissioned report released Monday has recommended that Israel legalize dozens of unsanctioned West Bank settlement outposts, a move that would defy international opposition to settling land Palestinians want for a future state.

The report, written by a committee with pro-settler sympathies, also reaffirmed Israel's longstanding position, at odds with most of the world, that the West Bank is not occupied territory and therefore Israel has the legal right to settle it.

If endorsed by the government, the recommendations could give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ammunition to support new settlement activity and fend off pressure from a Supreme Court that has ordered the government to take action against the existing outposts.

Netanyahu welcomed the panel's work and said he would bring its conclusions to a special forum that would decide whether to adopt them. Recommendations include annulling past Supreme Court rulings and legal orders to facilitate settlement construction.

Jewish settlements are at the heart of a three-year-old impasse in Mideast peace efforts. The Palestinians say they will not resume negotiations until Israel freezes settlement construction.

The outposts are unsanctioned enclaves that Jewish settlers began erecting in the 1990s to sidestep Israel's commitment to stop building new settlements. There are dozens of outposts, in addition to about 120 full-fledged settlements.

Of Israel's population of almost 8 million, about 500,000 now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas claimed by the Palestinians for a future state. The Palestinians and the international community consider the settlements illegitimate and obstacles to peace.

Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib immediately denounced the report's conclusions.

"This is in complete contradiction with international law and with specific resolutions of the United Nations ... and in contradiction with the official policy of almost every single country in the world," Khatib said. "We also think that such positions contradict the international efforts to establish peace based on two states, one of them in the territories occupied in 1967."

Netanyahu set up the committee in January to examine land use issues in the West Bank after concluding that a 2005 report on unauthorized settlement outposts was tainted by leftist bias. The author of the report, which had been commissioned by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a staunch settlement champion, was a former state prosecutor who ran for parliament on the dovish Meretz Party's ticket after leaving the civil service.

The new committee was headed by former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, who opposed Israel's 2005 Gaza Strip withdrawal. It was considered sympathetic to setters and was expected to issue the recommendation to legalize outposts.

Although they skirted official approval procedures, government officials knew the outposts were being built and supplied them with the infrastructure hookups and military protection given to sanctioned settlements. About 100 outposts, home to several thousand Israelis, dot the West Bank, in addition to more than 120 full-fledged settlements.