Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to set up a task force to explore ways to legalize houses in the settlements that were built on private Palestinian land.
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The instruction was issued under heavy pressure from settlers and others on the right in response to the state's decision to demolish several outposts built on private Palestinian land over the next half year.
In February, Netanyahu and three other senior ministers - Ehud Barak, Moshe Ya'alon and Benny Begin - met with the attorney general and other senior legal officials. The product of that meeting was a decision to demolish all outposts built on private Palestinian land, but to try to retroactively legalize any illegal construction in settlements or outposts that took place on state land. The state subsequently submitted affidavits to the High Court of Justice detailing the timetable for the demolitions.
Inter alia, the affidavits said that by the end of this year, the Givat Assaf outpost would be razed in its entirety, as would parts of the outposts of Givat Haro'eh, Ramat Gilad and Bnei Adam. In addition, by May 2012, 30 houses and caravans in Jebel Artis, near Beit El, will be demolished, while Migron, which is home to 45 families, is due to go by the end of March 2012.
The demolition of three houses in Migron on September 5 convinced the settlers that the government was serious. Ever since, they have been exerting heavy pressure on Knesset members, ministers and Netanyahu himself over this issue. Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi ) has hinted that he will quit the government if no solution is found, while MK Yariv Levin (Likud ) plans this winter in the Knesset to submit a bill under which Palestinians would instead be compensated with money or alternate land for any building erected on private Palestinian land with help from government ministries.
On Sunday, Netanyahu bowed to this pressure: At a meeting with ministers from his Likud party, he said he would order Neeman to explore ways to legalize the buildings in question. Any such solution would require new legislation.
Ever since 1979, when the High Court overturned an attempt to use the pretext of "security reasons" to expropriate private Palestinian land for settlements, successive attorney generals have all ruled that there is no legal way to build houses for settlers on private Palestinian land.
The settlers, however, claim that there are solutions: In some cases, the land's ownership can be challenged; in others, the owner could be compensated generously; and in others still, the owners could be declared absentees, enabling their land to be used, as is the case vis-a-vis land inside Israel.
While the task force's members have not yet been appointed, it seems they will not come from either the state prosecution or the military prosecution.
Culture Minister Limor Livnat, one of those who pushed for the task force, told Arutz Sheva radio on Monday that the goal was to examine the issue "without fear of what leftist groups will say. As the government, we need to govern."
Another politician said that even if the task force produced no solutions, its work would take several months and could provide a pretext for postponing the demolitions.
Haaretz has reported in the past that parts of two veteran settlements, Ofra and Eli, are also built on private Palestinian land. So far, no legal solution has been found for these settlements, so the task force will presumably be asked to deal with this issue as well.
Meanwhile, the government is also working energetically to legalize everything that has been built on state land, but without proper master plans or building permits, in both settlements and outposts. At stake is much of what has been built in the settlements over the last 20 years. Based on the state's submissions to the High Court, it seems it plans to legalize 326 permanent houses and 344 caravans.
However, various government legal officials say that certain outposts cannot be legalized without a cabinet decision to establish a new settlement - something the government wants to avoid due to the diplomatic ramification of such a moves. The government is seeking to declare these outposts neighborhoods of nearby settlements.
"Israel's policy regarding construction in Judea and Samaria has not changed," a statement from the Prime Minister's Office said in response to this report.