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Blue and White MKs turn on party minister over her support for illegal outposts

Diaspora Minister Yankelevich claims her call to legalize wildcat communities toes the party line; leader Gantz clarifies that he supports only those built on state land

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich in her office in Jerusalem, on November 26, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich in her office in Jerusalem, on November 26, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A Blue and White minister has expressed support for legalizing outposts in the West Bank, drawing the ire of other members of the centrist coalition party.

Blue and White lawmakers squabbled at a faction meeting Monday over remarks made by Diaspora Minister Omer Yankelevich the day before, in which she indicated that her party backs the wildcat settlement communities, many of which are built on private Palestinian land.

During the faction meeting, Blue and White’s leader, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, clarified the party’s position, saying it would only support legalizing outposts that are on state-owned land — even if they were built without approval.

Gantz also appeared to admonish his lawmakers for the media attention the incident had gained.

“I will oppose what is illegal, but what is legal will be sorted out, and you don’t have to run to the media on everything,” he said, according to a report by Channel 12 news.

Gantz said the Defense Ministry, which is in charge of administering Israel’s presence in the West Bank, is working to sort out which outposts it recognizes.

“Every deviation over that line is not [supported by] Blue and White’s position,” he said, according to the Walla news site.

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Blue and White MK Assaf Zamir had attacked Yankelevich during the faction meeting, saying she was causing “political damage” to the party at a time when the country seemed likely to be heading to early elections.

Yankelevich’s remarks are “a deviation from the ideological line of the party,” which harms its interests, he said.

He was reportedly joined in his criticism by MK Miki Haimovich.

Yankelevich defended herself, saying the statement she made was that the party line is to back legalizing settlements that were built in good faith on state land.

She later tweeted that her stated position, to back outposts “innocently built” on state land, is also that of the party.

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, May 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday Yankelevich had visited a protest camp outside the Prime Minister’s Office that was pushing for legalizing outposts. While some of the outposts were set up without approval on state land, others are constructed on territory that local Palestinians say is privately owned.

During her visit Yankelevich said, “I arrived to support you and to stand with you in your justified struggle.”

Blue and White leader Gantz, she said, “supports and gives his full backing to Minister Biton in the legalization process of the young settlements” a reference to the wildcat outposts and the involvement of Michael Biton, a Blue and White minister in the Defense Ministry, in a plan for their legalization.

Last week, Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud announced that the government will advance a proposal to legalize dozens of wildcat outposts in the West Bank.

Responding to a query on the matter in the Knesset plenum, Hanegbi said he had received the prime minister’s approval to discuss the matter with Biton.

However, Biton told Walla news that Hanegbi had not cleared the announcement with him and that he would only back such a move if it had the attorney general’s approval. A broadly worded resolution is unlikely to gain the backing of legal higher-ups.

A picture taken on February 8, 2017 from the Palestinian West Bank village of Yasuf shows the Israeli wildcat outpost of Kfar Tapuah West, located near the settlement of Kfar Tapuah. (AFP Photo/Jaafar Ashtiyeh)

The announcement followed weeks of pressure from settler leaders and far-right lawmakers who have pushed for the legalization of wildcat hilltop communities in the final weeks while US President Donald Trump is still in office. The Trump administration has avoided criticizing settlement expansion and has taken several steps to provide a stamp of approval to Israeli presence beyond the Green Line.

Some 120 outposts exist throughout the West Bank. Roughly a dozen of them look like established towns with hundreds of families. About 60 outposts are small agricultural communes that often only house a handful of families with little infrastructure. A similar number of outposts are tiny “settlement points” often consisting of a makeshift structure or two where ultra-nationalist teens known as hilltop youth live.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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