Settlements in a Nutshell

The main political news of the last few days was not this weekend's announcement by the Prime Minister's Bureau that Israel is prepared to talk with the Arab League's monitoring committee in order to promote the Arab peace initiative. Nor will the report it released the following day about Ehud Olmert's decision to support the arming of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' presidential guard apparently bring peace closer. The really important news was Interior Minister Roni Bar-On and Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair Tzachi Hanegbi lashing out against Defense Minister Amir Peretz for daring to act (after much delay) to evacuate the Hebron house.

The Israel Defense Forces commanders in the West Bank heard on the radio that in the ongoing struggle between the settlers and the rule of the law, the minister closest to the prime minister is on the settlers' side; Civil Administration officers heard that a senior MK from the ruling party prefers that they look the other way when the hilltop youth plant a stake for another outpost. What should these officers understand from Olmert's talk of peace (and arming?) in return for land, when the prime minister's best friends are encouraging the biggest opponents of the only deal in the region?

You could count on one hand the number of times that those in uniform have dared to confront the real rulers of the territories and risk a clash with the political leadership. It happened in the mid-1980s, during the days of the Peres-Shamir rotation government. Five MKs from the right, led by Geula Cohen, entered a Jewish home in the Old City of Hebron and "settled" there without permission. According to standard procedure, the Judea and Samaria brigade (now the Shlomo division) was to have sent a company of soldiers to ensure the safety of the VIPs, and the settlers were to select some outstanding young men and women to replace the public representatives.

While the politicians bickered, the settlers would gain a foothold at the site. The guard posts and electricity and water hookups would be set up within a few days, and the official permits would come within few weeks, at most a few months.

But this time, the players did not take into account that the new brigade commander Yaakov (Mendy) Or had introduced a new set of rules. Or came to visit the MKs and forgot to leave. The brigade commander sat down beside them and announced he would remain with them until they decided to go home. The voluntary evacuation was a matter of days, and the incident ended without a government crisis, without any foothold being established and without delays and court cases.

If only there were one person like Or in the top brass of the Central Command, in the Judea and Samaria division, in the Hebron brigade or in the Civil Administration. The story of the disputed house in Hebron 2007 could have ended similarly. Every second lieutenant serving in Judea and Samaria knows that the fact that a Jew purchased a piece of land from a Palestinian is not enough to kick off a new settlement. Every land deal in Judea and Samaria - and in any case, any attempt to move into new places there - requires the approval of the defense minister and the Civil Administration head. The settlers knew what Peretz's response would be and assumed that as in most cases, their facts on the ground would be stronger than the government.

The IDF commanders were obliged to ask the people in the disputed house to show them their permits when they were still working on refurbishing the structure. When the commanders discovered that they did not have a permit, the representatives of the Israeli government should have barred the settlers' entry into the complex. In the event that the settlers would have succeeded in entering the house, the commanders should have ordered an immediate evacuation. Dealing with the "fresh invasion" would have blocked the settlers from getting to the courts.

Last week, Haaretz asked the IDF Spokesman and the Civil Administration the following questions: Did the IDF forces in Hebron perhaps not see or hear that the settlers were refurbishing the house? If they did notice, what did they do to prevent the violation of the law? The IDF Spokesman responded, "After the residents entered the home, the matter was forwarded to the Israel Police for them to handle. In light of the testimony gathered during the police investigation and on the basis of the legal matter of evacuating a fresh invasion (and included therein also the need to review the question of the legality of the home ownership by the party seeking the evacuation), the conclusion was reached that it is not possible to act through this channel. Legally, one possible method of operation is that if the permit request submitted by the company that allegedly purchased the house is rejected, those living there may be evicted on the basis of other legislation, on the use of private lands without the legal right to do so. On April 11, the requests were submitted in accordance with this order. It was not possible to act in accordance with these legal proceedings before the residents entered the house." The Civil Administration preferred to remain silent.

Find the chairman

The commander in chief's spirit is apparently also inspiring the Justice Ministry's top leadership. According to a government decision from March 2005, which was renewed upon the formation of the Olmert-Peretz government, the justice minister is automatically the chairman of the ministerial committee for implementing Talia Sasson's outpost report. "Before the holidays," Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's office reported that he was not aware of this responsibility, and in any case, he has no intention of convening the committee. Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon promised that immediately "after the holidays" he would discuss this matter with the minister.

Yet at the end of last week, Maimon told Haaretz that he spoke with Friedmann and the whole matter had been resolved. This week the minister's spokesman, Moshe Tzachi, maintained his right to refuse to say when Friedmann intends to convene the committee and present its recommendations to the cabinet.

Five months have passed since Attorney General Menachem Mazuz wrote to Peretz that based on Civil Administration data, he has learned that "the building trend in the illegal outposts is continuing, including the construction of permanent structures." Mazuz notes that even though there has been a decline in the scale of the phenomenon as a result of halted budgets and increased monitoring, during the first three quarters of 2006, 168 illegal structures were found. Mazuz notes that even though over the past decade the scale of illegal building in the Palestinian sector is double that in the Jewish sector, the number of demolitions of structures built by Palestinians is 10 times greater (1,519 versus 150).

Incidentally, the Civil Administration reported that in 2006, there were 502 cases of illegal construction and 264 demolitions among the Palestinians. Among the Israelis, there were 301 such incidents and 147 demolitions. According to the Civil Administration, therefore, of the 150 building violations by settlers it handled, all but three were last year.

The laundering consultant

The case of Maskiyot, an abandoned Nahal outpost in the northern Jordan Valley designated to become a community for people evicted from Gush Katif, shows that the IDF is not the only body that has gotten the message. The settlers can also count on the devoted staff of the attorney general. At the beginning of the year, a few days before Peretz decided to freeze the plan to turn Maskiyot into the first new community in Judea and Samaria in more than 10 years, Meretz chair Yossi Beilin wrote to Mazuz: "There is concern that the government sought to set up the new settlement like thieves in the night, without a formal decision, thereby concealing its true policy."

Based on the response he received from Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, Beilin argued that the Maskiyot decision was not legal, as it contradicts the government decision whereby only the Knesset plenum is authorized to approve the establishment of new communities. Sneh informed him that the community was approved in 1982, but that the community's borders were approved only in 2005 at a meeting between the prime minister and the defense minister. Beilin argued that the government's July 1992 decision stipulated, "The implementation of previous government decisions regarding the establishment of communities that have yet to be implemented will require renewed approval by the government."

The decision to establish Maskiyot was never brought up for government approval, "and apparently not coincidentally" notes Beilin in his letter. "The political embarrassment that Israel will incur from a government decision to establish a new settlement, after it already announced that no new settlements would be established, is likely to be substantial."

In a detailed response he sent to Beilin in the name of Attorney General Mazuz, Assistant Attorney General Malkiel Blass wrote "we are satisfied" that there has been "a continuous presence" in Maskiyot since 1986, "while in most of the years, until 2002, it was a military presence in the form of a Nahal or Nahal Haredi outpost, and then later on there was an educational seminar and several families there."

Blass reveals that his previous boss, Elyakim Rubinstein, determined 10 years ago that turning a Nahal outpost into a civilian community did not require any further government decision.

This is story of the settlements in a nutshell. That is how for 40 years there has been cooperation between the political, military and legal leadership, for the glory of the state of the settlers.