Israel authorises three West Bank settlement outposts

Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly Israeli Cabinet meeting on 22 April The Israeli Prime Minister set up a ministerial committee to look at the outposts issue

Israel has decided to make legal under Israeli law three settlement outposts in the West Bank, the prime minister's office has said in a statement.

It said that a ministerial committee had decided to "formalise the status" of Bruchin and Rechelim, in the north, and Sansana, near Hebron in the south.

The Palestinian Authority strongly condemned the decision.

"Every single settlement built on Palestinian land is illegal", Chief Negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told the BBC.

The Israeli government had told the Supreme Court that it would regulate the status of the three outposts, which have a total of about 830 residents.

On Sunday, Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, formed a new committee, made up of four ministers, to look into the sites.

The statement said the "three communities... were established in the 1990s following the decisions of past governments".

Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, an Israeli official disputed the use of the word "outposts" to describe Bruchin, Rechelim and Sansana. He said a process was under way to formalise the changes in their legal status.

"The decision does not make any changes on the ground. It does not mean any expansion of existing settlements or establishment of new ones," he added.

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Israel considers settlement outposts built without government approval to be illegal or unauthorised.

About 500,000 Jews live in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in what the Israeli government considers legal settlements.

The international community considers all settlements in the occupied West Bank to be illegal under international law.

Palestinian anger

The Palestinians point out that this announcement comes a week after the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter to Mr Netanyahu.

In it, he asked that Israel freeze all settlement construction and accept the borders which were in place before the 1967 Middle East war as the basis for those of a future Palestine, with mutually agreed modifications.

"I don't want to get into a discussion about what the Israelis use as an excuse for what is legal and what is not," says Mr Erekat, who handed the letter to the Israeli Prime Minister. "The Israeli government must choose between peace and settlements. It cannot have both."

After the meeting with Palestinian officials, Mr Netanyahu's office said both sides were "committed to reach peace" and that an Israeli reply to the Palestinian letter would be sent within two weeks.

The Israeli settlement watchdog, Peace Now, has also criticised the Israeli government's legalisation of the outposts.

"This is the first time since 1990 that the Israeli government has decided to establish new settlements," said Hagit Ofran from the group.

"The government tries to deceive the Israeli public, bypassing the need to officially declare these three new settlements. However these tricks do not cover up their real policy to establish new settlements and not move towards peace and a two-state solution," she added.

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