Shvut Rachel, one of the oldest and largest settler outposts in the West Bank, was recently legalised by Israel. This move was strongly criticised by both Palestinian and Israeli activists ahead of talks scheduled for Monday between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American President Barack Obama.
Shvut Rachel, home to 95 Israeli families, was established 21 years ago on a hilltop in the heart of the West Bank, an area Israel would have to evacuate for establishment of a Palestinian state.
The founders of Shvut Rachel grabbed Palestinian land without holding appropriate Israeli authorisation, counting instead on “the support of various government ministries, the army and the Civil Administration,” as BT’selem reports.
The majority of Israeli outposts are made up of a few families or several settler youth living in trailers and other temporary shelters. The funding and support provided from private donors, and from the Israeli government via West Bank regional councils, help to construct infrastructure and eventually to transform the outpost into a permanent settlement.
Unlike settlements that are authorised by the Israeli government but violate international law, the Israeli outposts are illegal even under Israeli law as they were not planned by the designated Israeli authorities.
According to government officials and Yaakov Moshe, the mayor of Shvut Rachel, last week an Israeli planning committee retroactively legalised 115 apartments already built or under construction in the outpost.
Peace Now activists are currently pushing for an investigation of this move, which overturns Israeli official policy to not transform outposts into new settlements. Against this charge the Israeli Defence Ministry defended itself, telling AP that “Shvut Rachel is not an isolated outpost but a neighbourhood of Shilo settlement.”
The two settlements of Shvut Rachel and Shilo are about half a mile apart and this is part of the clear strategy of settlers, who establish their outposts close to recognised settlements. What the Defence Ministry’s statement highlights is the common Israeli practice of using the outposts to increase settlement activity: the outposts are authorised and merged into existing settlements with the claim that no new settlements have been created.
If this subtle policy of settlement expansion is illegal according to the international law, it also clashes both with a 2005 Israeli government-commissioned report that classifies Shvut Rachel as an outpost – and not as a ‘neighbourhood of Shilo’ – and with the promise of then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to dismantle any outpost.
On Monday Netanyahu and Obama will meet in Washington to discuss a wide range of issues. The resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace-negotiations and the dismantlement of Israeli outposts on the Palestinian land, as a first important step to reconciliation, will hold a prominent place.
Whilst government officials stress how Israel has proven in the past that it can dismantle settlements (ex. In Sinai and the Gaza Strip), it is difficult to believe in Israel’s intention to fully withdrawal from the West Bank given its ongoing settlement construction.
Palestinian spokesperson Ghassan Khatib says that a Palestinian state alongside Israel is becoming “practically impossible” because of the massive settlement construction and the 500,000 Israelis already living in more than 130 government-sanctioned settlements and 100 unauthorised outposts on Palestinian land.
Hagit Ofran, from the settlement monitoring project of Peace Now, remarks how the Israeli government’s actions are straightforward and send the settlers a clear message: “You build illegally where you want… and the government of Israel will approve it retroactively.”