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1. Gaining a foothold

A new road paved last week leads to Givat Haroeh. At the top of the hill stands a temporary structure - a synagogue - surrounded by a ring of vicious-looking guard dogs. A hired guard watches the place and summons the regional security coordinator at any sign of suspicious movement - such as the arrival of a car carrying an unexpected group of visitors.

The guard peers out from a flimsy hut camouflaged with a net. Below him, at a lower point on the slope, several caravans are spread about. They house a dozen families. But one shouldn't be fooled by the place's sleepy, makeshift appearance - the Givat Haroeh outpost has been here since July 2002. According to the Aqaba understandings, it should have been evacuated six months ago. Instead, there are signs of fresh construction: The ground is being prepared for the construction of six permanent units. The absorption coordinator of the Eli settlement is offering apartments for sale on Givat Haroeh, even though the outpost is supposedly slated for dismantlement.

A visit to the outpost of Magron is just as instructive. Just as Givat Haroeh is an extension of the Eli settlement, Magron is an extension of the Psagot settlement. Granted, there is no territorial contiguity between Magron and Psagot - the fields of the Palestinian village of Burqa separate them - but if the residents of the outpost so wish, the day could well come when a military order could annex them to the mother-settlement.

Magron began as an antenna put up by the Orange cellular communications company on Hill 748 in 1999. Buildings gradually sprouted around the antenna. Then settlers appeared there a year ago. In the past three months, the place has filled up rapidly. It now has about 50 prefab units housing 42 families - about 150 people in all. A sign points the way to the outpost and a freshly paved road leads up to it. The transformation of this place from a haphazard settlement effort by a few eager youths into a substantial yishuv could not have happened without significant assistance from the regional council and public funds.

Magron is the triumphant rejoinder of the Yesha settlers to the state's declared commitments and to the peace initiatives that it has already signed. Ostensibly, Magron does not exist: The outpost does not appear on the official maps, but it is alive and well, and with God's help - and a little help from the right people in high places - it will receive the defense establishment's stamp of approval.

Givat Haroeh can look forward to a similar future. The wide road leading to it may have taken a chunk out of the olive groves of Palestinian villagers, but who cares? Before long, its residents, the heads of the Binyamin Regional Council and the politicians who quietly support it will turn it into a permanent settlement, with electricity, water and telephone systems. Just as has been happening in recent months in Magron, where preparations for permanent structures are already underway.

This pattern of behavior is being repeated all over the West Bank: at Givat Assaf, at Tel Binyamin, on Hill 833, at Pelagei Mayim, at Nofei Nehemia and at dozens of other locations. The method is the same: A small pioneering cell establishes a "fact on the ground' in the form of two or three temporary structures. The initiative is often taken following a terror attack and is supposed to serve as a memorial to the victims or as an answer to Palestinian terror. The government does not react, or refrains from confronting the zealous youth, and they establish their presence at the chosen site. They intimidate their Palestinian neighbors, who don't set foot in the area around the outposts, even when they have ownership claims to the lands that the settlers have grabbed. In most cases, the Palestinians are forcefully kept away from their lands by the security fences that surround the Jewish settlement points, and in other cases, by aggressive deterrence that keeps them from getting close and leaves a security strip around the outpost - consisting of the blighted fields that the villagers are prevented from working. Thus the Palestinians lose their right to the land and provide Israel with an excuse to define it as state land upon which it is entitled to build outposts.

2. Sleight of hand

Early in the week, Ariel Sharon announced at the cabinet meeting that, since the Aqaba Summit in June, the defense establishment had "foiled" 43 attempts to build new outposts. This was the prime minister's answer when asked by Minister Yosef Paritzky (Shinui) what the government was doing about the illegal outposts, given the attorney general's instruction that the government should not extend them any assistance or services. The figure that Sharon presented epitomizes the slippery and contradictory language used in public, and diplomatic, discourse about the outposts: Sharon did not give any figures on the number of outposts removed in the past half year; nor did he say anything about the scope of construction and road-building in the existing outposts. But he pleased the ministers by letting them in on some inside information - There were 43 "attempts" to establish new outposts and the IDF, with characteristic determination, succeeded in "foiling" the plot. And just to give added impact to this dramatic revelation, the prime minister announced that he would soon present the government with a detailed report on the outpost issue and even hold a special cabinet session on it.

Just as Sharon's response to Paritzky was a smooth bit of sleight of hand that deflected the question and said nothing about the situation regarding the existing outposts, the government's public statements on this subject are also not quite what they seem. Minister Gideon Ezra, for example, announced two days ago in the Knesset that in the past year, 29 outposts were dismantled and the establishment of 14 more was foiled. The official figures from the Defense Ministry say that since November 2002 (when Shaul Mofaz took over as defense minister), 43 unauthorized outposts were dismantled. It's hard to know how many reappeared afterward, since the situation is quite fluid.

According to the Defense Ministry, since the Aqaba Summit, 22 outposts have been removed. Unofficially, some in the defense establishment say that the above statistic is misleading: There are outposts whose status is still pending, awaiting a High Court ruling; the status of others is still being investigated; and there is also a time lapse between when the minister gives the order to dismantle outposts and when this is actually carried out. While official policy is that all unauthorized outposts are to be removed, this is difficult to implement because close relations have developed between the settlers and IDF commanders in the field; because the military echelon doesn't always know how to interpret the political echelon's intentions in this regard; and because even when the IDF is resolved to evacuate outposts, the settlers play a game of cat and mouse with it.

Consequently, there has not been a substantial decrease in the number of outposts, and they continue to play their originally intended role: expanding the Jewish presence in Area C in a way that will make it impossible to separate it from Israel. The outposts are the weapon with which the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements sabotages every possibility of realizing the compromise formulas that are proposed from time to time in discussions between Israel and the Palestinians.

The term "outposts," in its present context, was born in 1996, when the Oslo redeployments were carried out and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu pledged not to build new settlements. This was a decree that Israeli governments, especially Likud governments, could not adhere to in the face of the settlers' pressure. So they played dumb and looked the other way when "outposts" - which were actually budding settlements - were established. Today, when the term "outpost," like "settlement" before it, has become an albatross for the government, the settlers need other terminology to define their efforts, such as a new "neighborhood" that pops up on the hills surrounding existing settlements in order to expand their borders (like Pelagei Mayim next to Eli, for example); an "agricultural farm" (Neve Daniel North); a "acclimatization farm" (next to Sha'arei Yeriho); a "research and development" area (on Mount Hebron and in Shaharit; two outposts that were removed); an "educational institution" (such as Horesh Yaron, near Talmon); and even a "synagogue" that was built outside the bounds of Ofra, to perpetuate the memory of Binyamin Kahana, and has stretched the settlement's security fence beyond its municipal borders. Whatever the semantic disguise, these are all outposts.

According to Peace Now, there are currently 103 outposts; Peace Now activist Dror Etkes closely tracks settlement activity in the territories. About 60 of these outposts were established during Sharon's tenure as prime minister and these are the ones that the United States is demanding be removed. In fact, only eight have been dismantled, as a result of the Aqaba Summit at which Sharon pledged to remove unauthorized outposts. Meanwhile, a dozen new outposts were established, of which seven were subsequently dismantled. The final tally, as of this week: The number of outposts has decreased by just three.

But even this figure doesn't tell the whole story: The remaining outposts are becoming increasingly more established. Infrastructure is being installed and keen efforts are being made to populate them and make their presence more substantial.

3. Outpost enablers

"Outposts" are a code word for new settlements, but they are often perceived as mere acts of mischief by a youth movement; their destructive influence on relations between Israel and the Palestinians is portrayed as negligible: They are scattered and sparsely populated and sometimes consist of no more than a water tank and a rickety shack. There are less than a thousand people living in all the outposts put together - an average of 10 people per outpost. Outposts are sometimes situated where they are for the purpose of compelling the army to spread its forces out more along West Bank roads. They rely on the assumption, which proves itself time and again, that a tiny Jewish presence is enough to establish facts and to force the state to extend its patronage.

The outposts pop up in accordance with a calculated master plan: Their role is to connect the Israeli settlement blocs in the territories in a way that will eventually preclude any part of them from being ceded to the Palestinians.

Outposts usually arise under the influence of a dominant settler leader. In most cases, this is a young, charismatic settler who attracts a band of followers. They are assisted by the established settlement leadership in Yesha - usually by the regional council where the outpost is set up. In time, electricity grids are extended to the outposts as well as other services from the state. This activity is not official: The public funds that are channeled into it do not appear on the budget books, the outposts do not appear on the official maps, yet they continue to arise and expand until they pass an approval process that transforms them into authorized settlements.

These settlement campaigns could not bear fruit without the quiet support of the IDF. The IDF is responsible for movement on the roads of the West Bank and of what occurs on its hilltops. The IDF does not hinder the big trucks from bringing caravans and prefabs to the outposts and it does not prevent the paving of roads leading to them. The IDF posts guards to protect the young people who populate the outposts and does not raise a protest against the violent means they sometimes use to expand their territory and to defend themselves.

The army is also supposed to check whether the outposts are established in accordance with approved plans and on state lands. Questions posed by Dror Etkes to the IDF regarding this go unanswered. The settlers have liaisons in the defense establishment who give them the green light to do as they please and who silently accept the violations of procedures and the law that their actions entail. They also enjoy the support of senior government officials who direct funds to them to support their activity.

4. Chorus of criticism

This is how the Yesha Council sees it: "The outposts are settlements in every way. They were established with our assistance in order to become permanent settlements. The `outpost' formula was invented by Israeli governments - both Labor and Likud - to avoid a quarrel with the left in Israel and with the American administration. We would have preferred a clear, official decision on the establishment of settlements. The way things have developed - they send us in the day to establish a yishuv - and at night, when someone raises an alarm, they leave us on our own."

The Yesha leaders feel that this problem would not have come up if it weren't for the interference of Peace Now people and American ambassador Dan Kurtzer. Two days ago, Yesha Council spokesman Yehoshua Mor-Yosef said furiously: "Kurtzer is the one leading the campaign against the outposts." Mor-Yosef made a blunt comment about the connection between the ambassador and the Israeli peace movement ("He gets a salary from them") and made another remark that shows how much the ambassador angers the settlers: "The satellite photos of the outposts that the ambassador presents are not a U.S. product but are aerial photos supplied to him by Peace Now."

Settler leaders acknowledge that in the past year they have run into a lot of difficulty in trying to establish new settlements in the territories, because of American pressure and because the methods by which the settlements grow have been exposed. But they stress that they will continue to develop the outposts, which they say are no more than expansions of existing settlements.

They maintain that the "road map" does not stipulate that existing settlements should be doomed to extinction, but only that new settlements should not be built. They are infuriated by all the fuss made in the media whenever a road is paved or a house is built in the Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria.

"Why should Israel have to strictly fulfill the directives of the road map when the Palestinian side isn't keeping its commitment to dismantle the terror organizations?" they ask. They say the situation in the outposts "only interests the leftist mafia and a few journalists."

"Anyone who believes that we will freeze the natural development of the communities is mentally ill," Mor-Yosef explained the other day. The Yesha Council leaders have reason to be angry, as indicated by what Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz was told last week in the United States, namely that the figures he has been providing about the number of dismantled outposts do not match the reports that Washington is receiving from independent sources.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who met with Secretary of State Colin Powell in Europe this week, was also treated to criticism over the government's handling of the outposts. And as if that weren't enough, in his speech in London two days ago, President Bush himself harshly criticized Israel's settlement policies. Essentially, the American administration is not only telling the government in Jerusalem that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and that the unauthorized outposts must be removed, but that Israel is not meeting its commitments and that its word cannot be trusted.

5. The last word

The Netivei Ayalon Company prepared road signs in anticipation of the opening of new sections of highway connecting Tel Aviv with Bat Yam and Holon. The signs are written in three languages: Hebrew, English and Arabic. When company CEO Aryeh Bar, a political appointee of Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman, learned of this, he instructed that new signs be produced, without Arabic. The explanation: The new sections are considered a "municipal" roadway, which according to a High Court ruling, do not require Arabic signage if the majority of the road's users do not need this language.

Though the section in question will connect Tel Aviv with two other municipalities - and is therefore an inter-city highway that ought to require Arabic signage as well - it has been given the Orwellian definition of a "municipal expressway" and is thus exempt.

This decision deviates from the established procedure of including Arabic on the road signs for existing routes between Tel Aviv and its satellite towns. It also doesn't make any sense: What should Aryeh Bar mind if the signs that have already been prepared in three languages are put up? Why would he prefer to stash them away, after they cost tens of thousands of shekels to make, and to lay out more money for the production of new signs in Hebrew and English alone? "Old signs may have included Arabic, but they were no longer relevant and therefore were removed," a spokesman for Bar told Haaretz transportation reporter Anat Georgi.

"Bar doesn't want to see a lot of wordage on the signs," was the explanation from Netivei Ayalon," though they forgot to add - "especially if it's in Arabic." It would be interesting to hear what the transportation minister has to say about the incident: Was Aryeh Bar's instruction given with his knowledge, or is what we have here an example of an eager student trying to impress his teacher? Avigdor Leiberman did not respond when asked about the matter.