How a Campaign to Legalize West Bank Outposts Settled Into Gantz's Party

As settler leaders realized annexation would be shelved for the time being, they launched efforts to legalize outposts by depicting them as communities without access to basic needs such as water and electricity

Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
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The West Bank settlement of Mitzpeh Kramim, August 2020
The West Bank settlement of Mitzpeh Kramim, August 2020Credit: Emil Salman
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf

The Yesha Council of settlements realized in July that the settlers’ dream of annexing parts of the West Bank was slipping away. To achieve something before the U.S. presidential election and the fall of Israel’s unity government, the council began a campaign with a more modest goal: legalizing unauthorized outposts.

To change the outposts’ image, the campaign sought to replace the word “outpost” with the term “young settlement” and depict the outposts as a social and humanitarian problem of young pioneers being treated as second-class citizens.

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Attesting to the success of the campaign, these messages were echoed not only by right-wing parties but also by ministers from Kahol Lavan, including in the name of the party chairman, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who in May formed the unity government with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gantz was forced to comment recently on the outposts after two Kahol Lavan ministers painted him into a corner: Michael Biton and Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich. The latter said Gantz supports legalizing the outposts – which she called “young communities.”

Gantz declined to comment on Yankelevich’s statement and, according to reports from a meeting of Kahol Lavan Knesset members, said: “The Defense Ministry is working on legalizing all the outposts that are located in legal areas, exactly according to the regulations and laws.”

Unauthorized outposts is a name for settlements built without a cabinet decision and that lack an approved master plan. In legal terms, there are different types of outposts: Some were built on state-owned land, others on privately owned Palestinian land, and some experience evictions by the authorities. There are also shepherd farms with very few people but very large tracts of land.

The authorities have let most outposts take root while supporting them or looking the other way. According to Peace Now, there are 124 outposts in the West Bank today.

Settlers near their outpost fighting an olive-grove fire that was caused by the Israeli police's tear gas canisters at the West Bank village of Burqa, October 16, 2020. Credit: Nasser Nasser/AP

Many outposts can definitely be described as populated. One is Ahiya, which was founded in 1997 near Shiloh in the northern West Bank. The government has stated in the past that in principle it intends to legalize Ahiya. According to the Binyamin Regional Council, 70 families live there in either permanent or mobile homes, and the community has a synagogue and ritual bath.

For the opening shot of the Yesha Council campaign, the Knesset’s Land of Israel caucus met in August, headed by MKs Bezalel Smotrich (Yamina) and Haim Katz (Likud). An entity established in 2018, the Forum for Young Settlement, also went into action. The forum operates with the support of the Yesha Council and represents some 70 outposts.

“At the time they did a great injustice to the settlement enterprise and invented the term ‘illegal outposts,’ and this term needed to be changed. It’s a battle over awareness,” said the founder and chairman of the forum, Uri Bartfeld, who lives in the Asahel outpost in the southern West Bank.

Comparing with the Bedouin

As part of the battle for public awareness, many MKs have visited outposts in recent months – among them ministers Biton and Yankelevich.

While the forum’s final goal is to legalize the outposts, its current campaign focuses on a goal ostensibly easier to identify with: setting up proper infrastructure for the outposts.

For example, MK Matan Kahana (Yamina) posted a video on Facebook called “Roni doesn’t have internet,” and MK Ariel Kallner (Likud) even said in the Knesset that “it’s completely outrageous to see the discrimination, the lack of basic infrastructure of electricity, water and communications in the young communities in Judea and Samaria compared to the unrecognized communities, for example, in the Negev” – Bedouin communities.

Benny Gantz in the Jordan Valley, West Bank, January 21, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

These statements draw a deceptive picture. Most outposts today are connected to electricity or water through the settlement near them. For example, when Netanyahu ordered this year that 12 outposts be connected to the power grid, one might believe that these were places where the people read by candlelight at night.

But actually, it may be that the electricity supply for these communities is irregular – because it’s not an official connection. So far, only one of these 12 outposts has been hooked up directly to the power grid; legal problems are slowing the process because the outposts have not yet been legalized.

The attempts to “authorize” the outposts – to make them legal – has been going on for years. The government told the High Court of Justice in 2011 that its policy was that the outposts built on privately-owned land would be removed, while those on state land would be made legal.

According to a former chairman of the Yesha Council, Pinchas Wallerstein, in the past few years about 10 outposts have been authorized, in cases where the matter was relatively simple. For example, Mevo’ot Yeriho was legalized just before the 2019 elections.

At the same time, the government is striving in the courts and planning bodies to legalize other outposts, including Mitzpeh Kramim and Ibei Hanachal, whose plans are now being authorized as a neighborhood of the settlement Ma’aleh Amos.

Kobi Eliraz, a former adviser to the defense minister on settlement affairs, surveyed the various outposts during his term along with the army’s Civil Administration in the West Bank and classified them by category.

Forty-five families live at Mitzpeh Kramim, 16 of them in permanent homes and another 29 in mobile homesCredit: Emil Salman

“Some are on land that can feasibly be declared state-owned land, others have access roads that pass through privately-owned land, others aren’t adjacent [to existing communities with infrastructure], and at some a land survey is needed,” Eliraz said.

As things stand now, it is possible to authorize about 20 outposts via a retroactive government declaration on their establishment. “We sat in at quite a few meetings, we pulled out documents and all the work was done. There’s nothing new here,” Eliraz said.

Vital cabinet  decision

At the beginning of November, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee held a session entitled “Legal advisers endanger residents in Judea and Samaria,” at the initiative of MKs Uriel Busso (Shas) and Kallner.

In attendance were settlement mayors, the Yesha Council’s director general and the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser for settlement affairs, Moshe Frucht – a lawyer and researcher for the Kohelet Policy Forum who was appointed by then-Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.

Frucht said that over the years the government has made clear that while it wants to authorize the outposts, a comprehensive cabinet decision has never been passed on the intention to legalize them.

“The minute a cabinet decision on advancing the authorization of a specific place exists, it will be much easier for me as a lawyer to find interim solutions,” Frucht said.

Benny Gantz and Avi Nissenkorn in December, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

This line of thinking led Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi to announce this week his intention to craft a cabinet resolution on authorizing the outposts, along with Biton and with Netanyahu’s approval.

Biton, however, said Hanegbi’s announcement was released without coordination with him. Biton told Haaretz that he supports “the authorization of any process that can be authorized and based on the attorney general’s legal opinion. Included in this is the use of previous relevant cabinet decisions.”

Biton’s statement can be seen as a sign that the Yesha Council’s campaign has been a success. Biton added: “All the legal citizens in Judea and Samaria, Arabs and Jews as one, are entitled to basic and equal humanitarian conditions of electricity, water, safety and infrastructure.”

On Sunday, the forum set up a display at the Knesset’s entrance with the names of the 70 unauthorized outposts. As expected, many right-wing MKs came to see it, but the person who stood out was Kahol Lavan’s Yankelevich; that’s where she announced her support for the “young communities.”

Still, members of the Yesha Council are pessimistic about the campaign. They say heavy staffing is needed to make all the necessary arrangements at the outposts, staffing that the Civil Administration doesn’t have. The council members plan to meet with representatives of the Civil Administration later this week.

Regardless of the split in Kahol Lavan on the outpost issue, this isn’t the first time Gantz has boosted the settlement enterprise. When this year the High Court of Justice found the Law for the Regularization of Settlement in Judea and Samaria unconstitutional, Gantz and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn put together a team to authorize some 2,000 housing units. Also, after the legalization of Mitzpeh Kramim was overruled by the court, Gantz and Nissenkorn convinced it to rehear the case.

Still, Gantz has not yet clarified his stance on the outposts, and his statements to party MKs haven’t shed light on his position. A few settlers laughed when Gantz said he supports the legalization of outposts located in “legal areas.” It was not clear to them either what exactly he was talking about.

The illegal outpost near Alonei Shiloh in the West Bank, June 27, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi