Vice PM: Ofra Settlement Homes Built on Private Palestinian Land

Statement is first time top gov't source publicly admits 'mother of settlements' was built on private land.

All 450 homes in Ofra, the "mother of settlements" in Samaria, were built on privately owned Palestinian land, Vice Premier Haim Ramon said during a session at the Knesset State Control Committee two months ago.

This is the first time such a senior government source has admitted in an official forum that the first settlement in Samaria was built on private Palestinian land.

In response to an inquiry by Haaretz, Ramon's office said the vice premier's statements were made based on information from the defense establishment.

Present at the committee session were some of the West Bank local council heads, including the director of the Yesha Council of settlements, Pinhas Wallerstein, one of the first people to move to Ofra. None of the guests challenged Ramon's statements regarding the property ownership.

Sources involved in settlement affairs said Monday that even though Peace Now has argued that Ofra is built mostly on private land, Ramon's official statement has both political and legal implications. This may include compensation demands by the Palestinian property owners.

Wallerstein responded Monday that to the best of his knowledge, the facts are not in line with Ramon's statements. He recalled that Ofra began as a work camp in 1975, established with the authorization of Shimon Peres, then defense minister in the first Yitzhak Rabin government, on the grounds of a former Jordanian military camp.

Peres even participated in planting a tree in the new settlement.

According to the transcript of the February 25 meeting, which addressed the outposts and the implementation of the Sasson Report, committee chairman MK Zevulun Orlev asked Ramon: "To add 20 more homes in Ofra has political implications? I want to understand the point." Ramon responded: "From many standpoints Ofra is not a good example for you, because all of it is build on private Arab land, private Palestinian property."

Ramon said the pressure to enlarge Ofra and other settlements does not stem from a housing shortage, but rather is an attempt to undermine any chance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

"Construction in Judea and Samaria, especially the illegal outposts, stems from a wish to establish political facts that will make it difficult for the Israeli governments to adopt a policy different from that of the persons building the illegal outposts. They declare this, and therefore this construction has an open political and ideological nature. People say, we will build without permission so that if the majority in Israel wants to return part of this territory [to the Palestinians], it will be impossible or it will be much more difficult," Ramon said.

Ramon, who chairs the ministerial committee on implementing the outpost report, added, "If it were up to me, everything would be allowed within the settlement blocks and nothing would be permitted beyond those [areas], and anything inside the fence would be approved and everything outside the fence not only would not be authorized, but I would be content if it were evacuated."

Eitan Broshi, an aide to the defense minister on settlement matters, said there are about 100 illegal outposts where 7,000 people live.

He told the State Control Committee that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had sent former Defense Minister Amir Peretz a letter listing which outposts should be evacuated first. Broshi said on February 25 that "in the coming weeks," there would be agreement with the Yesha leadership on the fate of 26 illegal outposts.