JERUSALEM — An Israeli watchdog group on Thursday accused the government of taking steps to legalize four unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, days before the U.S. secretary of state is set to arrive on a new peace mission.
The government announced its move this week in a filing to the Supreme Court, threatening to cast a shadow over Secretary John Kerry's visit. Kerry has been shuttling between Israel and the Palestinians in recent months in hopes of restarting peace talks.
Negotiations have been frozen for the past four years, in large part because of Palestinian opposition to Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands. The Palestinians say there is no point in negotiating while Israel continues to settle its citizens in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and claimed by the Palestinians for their future state.
More than 500,000 Israelis now live in Jewish settlements, which are considered illegal or illegitimate by the international community. Several thousand settlers live in unauthorized outposts that Israel has promised to dismantle.
The anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now has been pushing the government to carry out pledges made years ago to evacuate six unauthorized outposts.
In its latest response, the government indicated it is now looking into ways to legalize four of the communities: Maaleh Rehavam, Haroeh, Givat Assaf and Mitzpeh Lachish.
In the case of Haroeh, for example, it said Israel's defense minister had ordered officials to explore whether the outpost was built on "state land," potentially clearing the way for its legalization.
Peace Now interpreted the government's response as a declaration of intentions to legalize the tiny communities, which are home to several dozen settler families.
"The government is trying to avoid the enforcement of the law and to legalize the outposts instead of evicting them," said Hagit Ofran, a Peace Now spokeswoman. She called the move "a slap in the face" to Kerry.
She said the Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing on the matter for next week, though it is unclear when there will be a ruling.
Israel's Defense Ministry, which oversees policy in the West Bank, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office both declined comment. U.S. officials had no immediate comment.
But the Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad Malki, said the Palestinians "will not stand silent" if Israel legalizes the outposts.
"We will resort to the United Nations. We will ask the U.N. Security Council to discuss this and take the needed measures," he said.
Over Israel's objections, the Palestinians last September won upgraded observer status at the United Nations. Since then, they have repeatedly threatened to use their upgraded status to seek admission to additional U.N. bodies, such as the International Criminal Court, and push for international legal action against Israel.
Kerry is scheduled to arrive early next week in hopes of finding a formula to relaunch the first substantive peace talks since late 2008. The U.S. has repeatedly criticized both Israeli settlement activity as well as Palestinian threats to pursue international legal action against Israel as being unhelpful.
Jewish settlers began building outposts in the 1990s to sidestep an Israeli commitment to stop building new settlements. Today there are dozens of unauthorized outposts, in addition to about 120 full-fledged settlements across the West Bank.
Critics say the government has been quietly complicit in building the outposts, linking many of them to the Israeli electric grid and building roads for them.
A decade ago, Israel pledged to take down about two dozen unauthorized outposts, but it has done little to carry out its promise.