'The council permits illegal building and even promotes it'

State funds being used to build up illegal outposts, auditor charges

Settlement council, ministries and KKL-JNF are bankrolling construction in wildcat communities, even after Civil Administration issues stop-work orders, according to comptroller

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

View of the Givat Asaf outpost, near the Beit El settlement in the West Bank. (Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
View of the Givat Asaf outpost, near the Beit El settlement in the West Bank. (Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

The state comptroller blasted a West Bank regional council Monday for using state funds to bankroll construction projects in illegal outposts, in cooperation with various government ministries, as well as the Jewish National Fund.

“The activities of the Binyamin Regional Council should be viewed with great severity,” wrote Yosef Shapira in a new report, lambasting the West Bank’s largest regional body, which governs over 50 settlements in the central West Bank.

“A public body that is charged with protecting the law is acting to allow the construction of illegal outposts,” he added. “The council… permits illegal construction in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) and even promotes it.”

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.

State comptroller Yosef Shapira presents a report related to the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas during the summer of 2014, to Israel’s Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein (not shown), on March 14, 2018, at the Knesset in Jerusalem. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

Monday’s report offered several examples of outposts where the Binyamin Regional Council promoted construction, even with the assistance of government ministries.

In July 2015, the regional council began working on a promenade to connect the settlement of Talmon to the nearby outpost of Neria that cost NIS 1.25 million ($345,175).

Two months later, the Civil Administration — the Defense Ministry body that authorizes West Bank construction — issued demolition orders against the project.

But this did not prevent the regional council along with the Ministries of Agriculture and Interior to invest another NIS 1.25 million in the walkway.

While the council has insisted that the promenade was built for security reasons — a pretext that has been used to expropriate Palestinian land in the past — the state comptroller rejected the claim. Citing the outdoor fitness facilities and picnic benches, Shapira said the project’s goal was to promote tourism, though it is not clear if a legitimate security need would have changed his approach, in any case.

A group of settlers seen returning to an outpost near the settlement of Talmon, in the West Bank allegedly after an attack on local Palestinians (YouTube/ Haaretz)

In February 2016, the regional council allocated NIS 3.5 million ($960,000) to build a bicycle path for the Talmon settlement on private Palestinian land, outside the developed community.

Nearly half of the funds came from the Transportation Ministry, while the other half was bankrolled by KKL-JNF.

The money from the ministries was transferred to the regional council after the Civil Administration issued stop-work orders, the report stated.

“Government ministries continue to invest directly in illegal construction. They must refrain from this and make sure that money is not transferred if the construction is not done lawfully,” Shapira warned.

The report also called out the regional council for funneling NIS 2 million ($550,000) into the renovation of roads in the Harel and Esh Kodesh outposts, the latter of which is not even in the the municipality’s jurisdiction.

Responding to the report, the regional council said the comptroller “ignored the legal and political complexities of Judea and Samaria, which include the absence of clear law regarding the conduct of authorities.”

The municipal body said that any mistakes were done in “good faith,” have since been corrected and do not reflect the current reality.

Regarding its conduct financing construction in illegal outposts, the regional council insisted that it has a responsibility to provide basic needs for its residents, no matter where they choose to live. It also pointed out that the government over the past year has been working to legalize such hilltop communities.

Moreover, the regional council asserted that it only funds the establishment of modular homes in such outposts, which can be removed if necessary.

A settler’s house in the outpost of Esh Kodesh in the West Bank, on July 20, 2015. (Garrett Mills/Flash 90)

In its own response to the report, the Peace Now settlement watchdog called on government ministries “to exercise their authority and stop the illegal construction in the settlements.”

“It is time for those responsible for these methods to stand trial and be required to pay their debts to the public,” the left-wing NGO added.

KKL-JNF declined The Times of Israel’s request for comment.

In November 2017, Shapira published another report critical of the Binyamin Regional Council’s conduct.

He then charged that it had been rigging tenders, awarding public funds to a pair of right-wing NGOs.

Shapira accused the Binyamin Regional Council, led by former Yesha settlement umbrella council chairman Avi Roeh, of funneling hundreds of thousands of shekels to two organizations with close ties to Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich. The report was published just two days after the lawmaker introduced legislation bent on limiting the authority of the state comptroller.

In his report, Shapira said the Binyamin Regional Council had “tailored the conditions” by which NGOs could receive financial support from Roeh’s body “so that only specific NGOs could benefit.”

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich at his party’s weekly faction meeting at the Knesset, December 25, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The report did not name the two NGOs, but based on conversations with various settler officials, The Times of Israel was able to establish their identities. The first is Regavim, an organization that monitors Palestinian and Bedouin construction in Israel and the West Bank. The second is a small group known as Horizon for Settlement, which works to purchase West Bank land for the construction of settlements.

The West Bank council receives roughly two-thirds of its budget from the government, according to the report. Like all local councils, the Binyamin Regional Council is allowed to use a segment of its budget to finance the activities of NGOs. However, such backing is contingent on proper tenders and the funds being “distributed in an equal manner,” according to the report.

Asked why the comptroller chose to once again focus on the Binyamin Regional Council in Monday’s report, an official in Shapira’s office said that the comptroller had not been convinced that substantial changes were made to the municipal body’s conduct.

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