Israel plans to legalize four unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts already slated for demolition, a court document showed, days before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry returns to the region to try to restart peace talks.
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In a document submitted to the High Court of Justice on Tuesday, the state said that it will act to legalize four West Bank outposts for which a delimitation order was issued in 2003 by the Israel Defense Forces GOC Central Command. Such an order allows the army to demolish at any time structures located within the delimited area.
In 2007, attorneys Michael Sfard and Shlomi Zecharya petitioned the High Court on behalf of the Israeli anti-settlement organization Peace Now, to implement the order. Since then, the state has changed its position several times, but in February 2011 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that these outposts, which are located on privately owned lands, would be demolished.
The delimitation order does not distinguish between privately-owned and state lands; as a result, construction in the outposts continued despite the order. The High Court requested clarification from the state, and on Tuesday a detailed opinion concerning each one of the four outpost was submitted to the court. In the document, the government said it had taken steps in recent weeks to retroactively authorize the outposts, which were built without official permission.
The four outposts in question are: Givat Asaf, located near Beit El; Mitzpeh Lakhish in the southern Hebron hills; Ma’aleh Rehavam in Gush Etzion; and Givat Haroeh, which is located near the settlement of Eli.
Concerning Givat Asaf, an outpost located entirely on privately-owned Palestinian land, the state reported that the settlers have purchased three-quarters of the land on which the buildings stand: one plot was purchased in its entirety, while 90 percent of a second plot and 30 percent of the third was purchased. Therefore, the government has ordered the Civil Administration to examine the possibility of legalizing the outpost. According to the document, the deals were carried out by El Watan, a company owned by the cooperative association Amana, on behalf of the settlers.
Concerning Mitzpeh Lakhish, it was reported that the government is acting to regularize its legal status and the area will be annexed to the mother settlement of Negohot, and as a result its delimitation order will be lifted. Givat Haroeh, the state has said, is located on survey lands, meaning that it is not known whether or not it is located on privately-owned land. The access road to the outpost, however, is paved on private lands. The government said that it plans to examine the status of the land on which the outpost was built.
As for Ma’aleh Rehavam, most of which was built on state-owned land, recently discovered new constructions there were demolished. The state said it now intends to consider legalizing the outpost.
In a response to Haaretz, Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer said: “Instead of defending Israel’s interest, the defense minister is defending the security of the hilltop youth. This is a slap in the face to the efforts of the U.S. secretary of state to restart negotiations" between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel has been sending mixed signals on its settlement policy as Kerry pursues efforts to revive negotiations that were quit by the Palestinians in 2010 in anger over Israeli settlement building on land they seek for a state.
A spokesman for Netanyahu declined to comment on the government's response to the court.
Last week, Peace Now and Israeli media reports said Netanyahu has been quietly curbing some settlement activity by freezing tenders for new housing projects, in an apparent effort to help the United States drive to renew peace talks.
But Peace Now said at the time construction already under way was continuing, and Israel announced last week that it had given preliminary approval for 300 new homes in Beit El settlement as part of a plan Netanyahu announced a year ago.
Kerry, due to meet Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas separately next week, has said he believes "the parties are serious" about finding a way back into talks.
The main issues that would have to be resolved in a peace agreement include the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, the future of Jewish settlements, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
Some 500,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which was also captured from Jordan in 1967. About 2.7 million Palestinians live in those areas.