Following Peace Now’s Petition, the Police Will Investigate Illegal Construction in Settlements for the First Time

Following a petition filed by Peace Now, the High Court of Justice ordered yesterday (May 9, 2024) the prosecutor’s office and the police to open a criminal investigation into the construction of an illegal residential neighborhood in the “Hayovel” outpost near the Eli settlement. After six years of court hearings and repeated postponement requests by the state, which sought to avoid investigating the phenomenon of funding, initiation, and construction of illegal outposts and neighborhoods in the West Bank, the judges of the High Court decided to oblige the state to investigate the issue.

Peace Now: “The illegal construction in the settlements is not a marginal phenomenon. There is a fraudulent mechanism involving official bodies and public funds, through which a small and organized group of settlers builds settlements, sets facts on the ground and imposes its vision on an entire country. Law enforcement authorities have been defending settler criminality for years, and today the court ordered them to stop this lawlessness.”

The beginning of the illegal infrastructure works for the new neighborhood in Hayovel outpost, 2017

The High Court of Justice made a precedent-setting decision today (May 9, 2024) in a petition filed by Peace Now, and ordered the law enforcement authorities to open a criminal investigation for extensive illegal construction in the Hayovel outpost near the Eli settlement. Judges Dafna Barak Erez and Ruth Ronan accepted the petition, while Judge Willner ruled that the court only needs to oblige the authorities to decide whether to open an investigation or not. The petition (HCJ 2368/18), which was submitted in 2018 through the lawyer Michael Sfard, described how a new neighborhood was built in the Hayovel outpost without any approved plan and without building permits. The petitioners presented evidence that the Binyamin Regional Council, which is the local authority in whose area the construction was carried out, was involved in promoting the construction and even financed the illegal infrastructure works for the sum of nearly one million NIS.

From the list of expenses of the  Benyamin Regional Council which was transferred to Peace Now following a FOI petition:  The Municipality spent more than 800,000 NIS in infrastructure in Hayovel outpost

The respondents on behalf of the state did not dispute that it was illegal construction, yet they did not see fit to order the opening of an investigation. Instead, the state representatives tried in various ways to gain time and delay the investigation. They claimed that the attorney general intends to establish a “special enforcement unit” that will investigate suspicions of violations of planning and construction laws in the West Bank and that the case of the construction in the Hayovel outpost, as well as other cases of illegal construction, will be handed over to the unit when it is established, and then it will be decided whether to investigate or not. However, the establishment of the unit was delayed and postponed, and the hearing of the petition dragged on for about six years. Until recently, the state informed the court that Minister Smotritch decided to cancel the establishment of the investigation unit. After this development, Judges Barak Erez and Ronan ruled that the petition should be accepted.

Judge Barak Erez stated, among other things, that: “In the absence of any substantive answer to the question of why an investigation will not be opened, we are left with a sweeping and inexplicable rejection of the investigation of the suspicions concerning the commission of planning and construction offenses in the area.”

Judge Ronen stated that: “Under these circumstances, since the dedicated unit has not been established and will not be established – the conclusion that the investigation must be carried out by other means is called for. At this stage, this is only an investigation, so the remedy is prudent, and even coincides with the fact that, as stated, it is illegal construction”.

In 2017, Peace Now published a thorough report: “Unraveling the Mechanism Behind Illegal Outposts” which included a comprehensive investigation of how the various authorities are involved, assist, and finance the construction of illegal outposts in the West Bank. The investigation revealed that the local authorities of the settlements, and especially the Regional Councils of Binyamin, Shomron, Gush Etzion, and Har Hebron, finance illegal construction and infrastructure, grant fictitious building permits to houses, and provide services to outposts. The investigation also revealed the involvement of the Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization and the Amana settlement movement in the fraud mechanism underlying the establishment of the illegal outposts.

Following the investigation, Peace Now has turned to the police and the state attorney’s office demanding to investigate the matter. Peace Now filed many complaints about cases of illegal construction in the settlements with evidence linking the authorities and their leaders to the construction carried out on the ground, but in all cases, the law enforcement authorities refrained from opening an investigation. In six of these cases, Peace Now filed petitions. Two petitions were rejected because of the state’s promise to establish a special investigation unit. Peace Now is now waiting for the court’s ruling on four similar petitions regarding illegal construction in the Haroeh outpost, Karnei Shomron, Shvut Rachel, and Sde Boaz.

Adv. Michael Sfard, who represented Peace Now together with Adv. Alon Sapir: “The illegal construction in outposts and settlements is an organized crime on a huge scale. It’s time for the law enforcement authorities to do their job. It’s a shame that judicial intervention was needed to make it clear to the police and the prosecutor’s office that no one is above the law, even if they are settlers.”

To read the verdict (in Hebrew) see here.