Israeli officials could face charges over outposts
An inquiry commissioned by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday recommended possible prosecution of public officials for helping to spread unauthorized settler outposts in the occupied West Bank.
Israel is meant to remove the outposts under a U.S.-backed peace plan, but the report said officials at the defense and housing ministries and the quasi-governmental World Zionist Organization as well as army administrators had worked to encourage them.
Former state prosecutor Talia Sassoon said her investigation had found "blatant violations of the law that threaten the rule of law in Israel."
Leaks from Sassoon's report have already stirred up a political storm at a time of optimism for peace talks, but the findings are little surprise to many Israelis or to Palestinians who want the occupied land for a state.
Sharon, who once urged Israelis to grab West Bank hilltops but is now reviled by settlers for planning to abandon the Gaza Strip, is to present the report to his cabinet on Sunday.
But his spokesman said the government would not take action before the attorney-general gave his opinion.
It is unlikely the outposts will be removed before the planned withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip and four of 120 West Bank settlements this summer, to avoid provoking further settler anger, political sources said.
The United States reiterated Washington's longstanding call on Israel to remove the outposts -- which generally consist of clusters of trailers or caravans -- in keeping with its commitments to the "road map" for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
"We would expect that this comprehensive report, which was commissioned by Prime Minister Sharon, will be used by ... Israel to meet its previous pledges on stopping construction of unauthorized outposts and removing existing ones," State Department spokeswoman Darla Jordan said in Washington.
The international community views all the settlements as illegal. The outposts are unauthorized even by Israel.
Sassoon said she did not know exactly how many outposts exist nor how many Israelis live in them because not all officials had provided information.
She estimated that 105 had been built, most without requisite cabinet approval. Fifteen were constructed on private Palestinian-owned land, and another 65 on mixed plots or on land whose ownership was not clear.
She said the outposts built on private Palestinian land were "totally illegal and must be removed."
The report also said many encampments were still being expanded, despite Sharon's pledges to dismantle them.
Illegal actions cited included approving the moving of caravans to outpost sites, hooking them up to electricity and water and ordering soldiers to protect the settlers in them.
Sassoon said thousands of demolition orders for the outposts had been ignored, accusing Israeli authorities of engaging in "double talk" -- on the one hand allowing illegal activities to take place and then asking law enforcers to act.
Sassoon called for measures to make it easier to prosecute Israelis for illegal settlement activity.
The outposts are in addition to more than 200 Jewish settlements built by the Israeli government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.
Some 240,000 Israelis live in these settlements, scattered among 2.3 million Palestinians who want to build a state in these territories.