Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that his Cabinet has decided to retroactively legalize three West Bank outposts that previous governments had conceded were built without permission, marking the first step toward what critics fear will become Israel's first official new settlements since 1990.
Government officials said it was inaccurate to characterize the legalization process as establishing new settlements, noting that the three outposts were founded in the 1990s, reportedly with the government's blessing. Officials said the outposts only lack certain technical authorizations and planning permits, which now will be given.
"This decision does not change the reality on the ground whatsoever," said a government official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. "It does not establish new settlements or expand existing ones."
The decision late Monday by a Cabinet committee begins a long administrative process to authorize the small settlements of Rehalim, Sansana and Bruchin.
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Although most of the international community views all Israel settlements to be illegal, Israel makes a distinction between settlements it has authorized and the so-called outposts, most of which sprang up over the past 20 years. Although outposts have not been formally recognized by the government, they do receive substantial support in the form of security, roads and infrastructure.
The move infuriated Palestinians and frustrated the international community, which has been pushing Israel to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and refrain from taking actions that might hinder efforts to restart peace talks.
Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government has been under pressure in recent weeks because of court-mandated deadlines to dismantle some outposts, such as Migron, now due to be evacuated by August, and Givat Haulpana, which is facing eviction by May 1.
The Cabinet also decided Monday to ask the court to delay the Givat Haulpana deadline in order to avoid the evacuation of 30 families living on land claimed by Palestinians. A year ago, the government had conceded that the homes should be dismantled and promised to do so by May.
A similar government request to delay until 2015 the evacuation of Migron was rejected by the court last month.
Some see the move to legalize the other three outposts as a way to appease conservative lawmakers and settlers' groups, who have accused Netanyahu of betraying them.
Over the weekend, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, who opposes dismantling the outposts, predicted the government might collapse if Givat Haulpana is evacuated. "If the demolition of Ulpana Hill (Givat Haulpana) requires the dissolution of the government, then so be it," Yaalon said.
Adding to the domestic tension over Israel's settlements, a Jerusalem court ruled last week that a building taken over by Jewish settlers in Hebron in 2005 was not legally purchased as claimed by the settlers and must be evacuated within four weeks.
The settlers had claimed that they purchased the building from a member of the Palestinian family that owned it, but the court found that the sale documents were invalid.
That decision comes just two weeks after Israel's military forcibly evicted another group of settlers who had taken possession of a vacant building in a Palestinian neighborhood of Hebron that they claimed to have purchased. The government removed the settlers pending verification of their sale documents, which Palestinian leaders in Hebron say may be forged.