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Israel vows to dismantle outposts

Follows inquiry that found government aided construction

From Yoav Appel

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West Bank

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel's government pledged Sunday to honor its commitment to dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank after a government report outlined widespread complicity among governmental ministries that aided the outposts' construction.

But Cabinet ministers interviewed by Israeli media Sunday said it was unlikely they would be dismantled before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank goes ahead in August.

The government did not provide a timeline for dismantling the 24 illegal outposts, which it committed to tear down as part of the U.S.-backed "road map" for a Mideast peace settlement in May 2003. According to the plan, Israel must dismantle West Bank outposts built after Sharon took office in March 2001.

"Israel's government will honor this commitment," Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon said in a statement.

The road map -- sponsored by the so-called Mideast Quartet of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union -- calls for an end to Israeli-Palestinian violence, followed by a "final and comprehensive" settlement of the conflict and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

During a meeting Sunday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Sharon also restated his commitment to evacuate those outposts -- but he noted that "this was difficult today due to the preparations for disengagement" in the West Bank and Gaza, according to a spokesman for the prime minister.

Annan said that members of the Mideast Quartet have been "very encouraged" by recent developments in the region and that he looked forward to talks with Sharon and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

More than 100 such Jewish outposts are estimated to be in the West Bank. Some of them consist of little more than tents or trailers, and some were built on private Palestinian property.

Palestinians say that each new outpost costs them more and more land they will need for a future state. A handful have been dismantled in recent years, frequently after clashes between settlers and police or soldiers.

But a report ordered by Sharon and made public last week found widespread complicity among government departments for construction and support of the illegal outposts. Former prosecutor Talia Sasson, who led the investigation, concluded that millions of dollars in public funds had been secretly channeled to the outposts, particularly from the Housing Ministry. (Full story)

Israel's Cabinet formally adopted the report in its weekly Sunday meeting and appointed a ministerial committee to form conclusions on the outpost issue -- a move critics called an attempt to delay dealing with the outposts.

Peace activist Yariv Oppenheimer said the report "proves to the Israelis and the world, the government of Israel did a lot in order to establish new outposts and to expand the existing ones. It is not something the settlers did alone."

Settlers say they were doing what Sharon had wanted them to do before his change in policy a year ago, when he ordered the evacuation of Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

"So he should look at himself in the mirror and ask himself why and how he did it," settler leader Shaul Goldstein said. "He has to be questioned, not us."

What remained unclear in the wake of the report is whether senior figures in successive Israeli governments turned a blind eye to the illegal financing of these outposts, or whether they were unaware of what was going on.

The country's attorney general will decide whether there is a need for a criminal investigation.

CNN's John Vause contributed to this report.

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