Illegal Outposts: The Rot Starts at the Top

Funds transfered by government ministries were used by West Bank council heads to finance illegal settlement activity

Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar
Akiva Eldar

Attorney Talia Sasson, who is in the process of completing her report on settlers' outposts in the West Bank, has the reputation of being thorough and professional. It is likely, therefore, that she has came across a copy of a sharp letter sent in the Spring of 1997 by then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein to chief military prosecutor Brigadier-General Uri Shoham and Central Command commander Uzi Dayan.

It was in the days of the Netanyahu government. Rubinstein warned the senior officers of "the increasing incidents of land invasions in Judea and Samaria, by building roads, placing mobile homes and building structures."

Sasson also probably received a copy of Rubinstein's letter from the winter of 1998, complaining that not only had nothing been done since his last letter, but that the situation had become even worse. Three months later he warned Dayan of the ongoing violations of the rule of law and demanded that he act immediately to evacuate the squatters.

Rubinstein wrote that if the squatting became permanent it would enable the settlers to claim immunity under the statute of limitations, that due to the delay the structures might no longer be destroyed, thus "trampling the rule of law and holding it in contempt." The trespassers must therefore be evacuated by force while the invasion is still "fresh," he wrote.

Every illegal outpost started with a large truck hauling a trailer through the West Bank. An examination of the squatters' modus operandi must have led Sasson to the key question: Who, over the years, has instructed the IDF officers, who have complete control of the area, to permit hundreds of semi-trailer trucks to arrive unhindered at their destinations.

In August 1999 the IDF Civil Administration's legal adviser, Shlomo Politis, wrote to then-Central Command chief Moshe Ya'alon. Politis said that in the case of moving trailers to illegal outposts, one hand of the authorities did not know what the other was doing. He told Ya'alon, the commander in charge of the West Bank, of cases in which settlers who received demolition orders for illegal structures had also received permits to move the mobile structures to the same outposts. The permits were signed by the Civil Administration officer in charge of infrastructure.

The great land robbery in the West Bank

That officer was lieutenant colonel Yair Blumenthal. This week, almost six years after Politis's letter was sent, Blumenthal was arrested on suspicion of involvement in a major land scam with JNF subsidiary Himnuta. Blumenthal allegedly approved real estate deals in the West Bank while knowing that the signatures of Palestinian land owners who were "selling" their land were forged. Police suspect that Blumenthal took bribes to okay the transactions.

Chief Superintendent Eliezer Elhar of the Samaria and Judea District Police said, "I have more than a gut feeling that this is a criminal case mixed with more than a pinch of ideology."

This is not the first time that IDF officers in the territories, most of them settlers themselves, have been suspected of pursuing their own interests in the course of serving the state. For example, at the end of the `90s ten of the 29 gas stations in the territories were operating without a permit and six stations operated without a contract with their owners. The owners of 18 station owners went without paying royalties on their franchise for many years. Settler-officers are also suspected of involvement in the illegal operation of quarries in the West Bank and of selling the stone on the open market.

Sasson will probably not limit herself to denouncing small fry like Blumenthal. According to the State Comptroller's report from 2003, due to the sensitive nature of moving mobile structures to outposts, it was decided that such moves would require the approval of the defense minister's aide in charge of settlements. The comptroller found that in 2002, Yossi Vardi, aide to then-defense minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, authorized moving mobile structures before the legal status of the land in question had been determined. He did so without the approval of the Civil Administration's infrastructure head, as required by the regulations.

If Blumenthal talks to the police, he could tell them a lot about the role played by ministers and generals, whether through action or inaction, in the great land robbery in the territories.

Vardi told the State Comptroller that he had acted on the instructions of the defense minister. Ben-Eliezer, however, said he did not deal specifically with the cases mentioned in the report, and only set a general policy not to authorize acts in violation of regulations.

Ben-Eliezer and his aide were no exception. During the second half of the 90s, especially during the Netanyahu administration, settlers erected illegal buildings, invaded lands and built roads at about 200 sites. These methods continued to be used in the days of Barak and Sharon. The State Comptroller said that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's new aide, Ron Shechner, who lives in Yatir in southern Judea, authorized funding for "security components," a code for roads, lighting, means of transportation etc., for settlements whose legal status was unclear. In other words, illegal outposts.

Shechner told the comptroller that "the Central Command's policy is to provide security for Jewish residents in settlements that are in the process of regulating their legal status."

The comptroller was not satisfied and ordered the Central Command to stop providing state funds for activities on land whose use has not been authorized or legally established.

In June 2003, Rubinstein instructed ministries to stop funneling funds to illegal outposts, especially for construction. In April 2004, a few weeks after entering office, new Attorney General Menachem Mazuz discovered that the Housing Ministry was ignoring these instructions, and imposed a freeze on all financial transfers to local authorities in the West Bank.

West Bank council heads `act like mafioso'

The findings of the two attorneys general that funds transfered by government ministries were used to finance illegal activity means West Bank council heads were responsible for violations of the law.

Dror Halevy, chairman of the movement for the separation fence, has helped start a neighborhood for veterans of combat units, just over the Green Line, in the Binyamin region. He has provided Sasson with a great deal of information on the methods and finances of the regional councils. Halevy, who has also met Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz and Housing Minister Isaac Herzog, told them that the council heads, who also head the local planning and construction commissions, are responsible for enforcing planning and construction laws.

Halevy said that for a head of a local planning and construction commission to authorize funds for illegal building projects is tantamount to organized crime. He said the illegal use of public funds in the territories is unparalleled. "Everyone talks about Pinchas Wallerstein's political views, forgetting that he holds public office and officially represents the state's licensing and enforcement agencies," said Halevy. Wallerstein heads the Binyamin Regional Council, in southern Samaria.

In Binyamin, entire residential neighborhoods have been financed with public funds and built without a master plan. Wallerstein says that this is acceptable practice.

Last week Halevy told Supervisor of Banks Yoav Lehman he believes that mortgage banks have transferred funds and accepted as collateral hundreds of millions of shekels worth of assets whose legal status is unclear, and may be associated with criminal acts.

Lehman told Haaretz that this is a political issue outside his authority, and although there is no evidence that it threatens the banks' stability, he ordered an examination of Halevy's complaint.

In an attempt to illustrate the incestuous nature of the settlers' ties to political power and finance, Halevy has collected material about a well-known Jerusalem attorney who specializes in construction projects in the territories. The lawyer serves as legal adviser to a planning and construction commission, supervises its inspection department and represents the regional council in contacts with entrepreneurs. He also helps set taxes and fees, and to collect them. At the same time, he represents the IDF commander in the region, as well as settlements in which there is illegal construction. He also represents companies and entrepreneurs who are constructing projects that are suspected of being illegal.

At the same time this person represents the tax collector and the tax payer, issues and obtains permits, supervises and represents regulatory bodies. In between all that, he provides legal services to the Yesha Council of Jewish Settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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