'Outposts' Thriving in the West Bank

The Associated Press
Saturday, February 17, 2007; 11:31 AM

BRUCHIN, West Bank -- With its playgrounds, identical houses and manicured flower beds, Bruchin looks like any placid Israeli suburb. Except that Bruchin is not supposed to exist.

Bruchin is among more than 100 West Bank outposts never officially authorized by the Israeli government. And Israel's repeated commitments to freeze settlement construction haven't hampered Bruchin's transformation from a cluster of trailers less than eight years ago into a thriving community of 380 people, girded by government supplied roads, electricity and water.

"Normally, when you think of an outpost you think of a water tower. This is a real town," said Amishai Shav-Tal, one of Bruchin's founders.

Unlike the full-blown settlements that have been built in the face of international criticism, the outposts have never gone through the public process of gaining official government approval. Many of them began as little more than a cell phone tower or trailer erected by settlers on a West Bank hilltop to establish a presence there, a seed they used to quickly establish a new community.

The outposts infuriate the Palestinians, who see them as part of a plan to strengthen the Jewish grip on land they want for an independent state.

With the international community focusing its disapproval mainly on the traditional settlements, Israel has managed to quietly plant a slew of the outposts across the West Bank, say Palestinians, Israeli critics and even the settlers themselves.

"This is the game that the government always played with the settlers: 'You will do it, we will turn a blind eye and then one day when we are politically able to, we will legalize it,'" said Dror Etkes, who monitors settlements for the Israel's Peace Now movement.

Israel has not built an official settlement in more than a decade. When it approved a new one in late December, it quickly backed down under international condemnation.

But Bruchin is a different story. Settler leaders and a former Cabinet minister say the government cooperated through every phase of its creation in the northern West Bank. In recent talks with the Defense Ministry, which must approve new settlement construction, the settlers demanded Bruchin be the first in a string of developed outposts to be recognized as full settlements, which would ease fears that they could be forcibly removed.

"They have no choice, they have to recognize most of the outposts," said Bentzi Lieberman, a settler leader.

Over the 40 years since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast War, the settlers have cultivated political allies and manipulated divided coalition governments in their favor. They capitalized on Palestinian hostility toward Israel to push the claim that the entire West Bank is the Jews' biblical birthright and a vital security buffer with the Arab world.

But some outpost residents fear the government may be turning against them.

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