JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli watchdog group on Thursday accused the government of taking steps to legalize four unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, days before the U.S. secretary of state is set to arrive on a new peace mission.
The government announced its move this week in a filing to the Supreme Court, threatening to cast a shadow over Secretary John Kerry's visit. Kerry has been shuttling between Israel and the Palestinians in recent months in hopes of restarting peace talks.
Negotiations have been frozen for the past four years, in large part because of Palestinian opposition to Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands. The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to settle its citizens in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
More than 500,000 Israelis now live in Jewish settlements, which are considered illegal or illegitimate by the international community. Several thousand settlers live in unauthorized outposts that Israel has promised to dismantle.
The anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now has been pushing the government to carry out pledges made years ago to evacuate six unauthorized outposts.
In its latest response, the government indicated it is now looking into ways to legalize four of the communities: Maaleh Rehavam, Haroeh, Givat Assaf and Mitzpeh Lachish.
In the case of Haroeh, for example, it said Israel's defense minister had ordered officials to explore whether the outpost was built on "state land," potentially clearing the way for its legalization.
Peace Now interpreted the government's response as a declaration of intentions to legalize the tiny communities, which are home to several dozen settler families.
"The government is trying to avoid the enforcement of the law and to legalize the outposts instead of evicting them," said Hagit Ofran, a Peace Now spokeswoman. She called the move "a slap in the face" to Kerry.
She said the Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing on the matter for next week, though it is unclear when there will be a ruling.
Israel's Defense Ministry, which oversees policy in the West Bank, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office both declined comment. U.S. officials had no immediate comment.