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Sharon criticised over settlements
Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, could face a criminal investigation after an inquiry today found government funds had secretly been used to set up illegal West Bank settlements.
A report by the former state prosecutor Talia Sasson called for Israel's attorney general to consider initiating criminal proceedings after discovering various ministries and official institutions had cooperated in channelling money to help to establish unauthorised outposts over the past decade.
Ms Sasson said the discovery called for "drastic steps" to be taken in order to protect Israel's democracy. Although she did not say by name who should face investigation, commentators said Mr Sharon would have played a key role in setting up outposts.
As foreign minister in 1998, Mr Sharon urged settlers to seize West Bank hilltops and establish outposts. One of the peak periods for establishing settlements began after Mr Sharon became prime minister, in 2001.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that control of Jericho and surrounding West Bank areas will be transferred to the Palestinians within the next few days. The handover was announced late last night following a two-hour meeting between the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli defence minister, Shaul Mofaz.
The Sasson inquiry found the housing ministry was among the departments actively involved in setting up outposts. She said the ministry had supplied more than 400 mobile homes and had not established who owned the land on which the enclaves were set up.
"Some of the outposts, built by the housing ministry, were unfortunately built on privately owned Palestinian land," Ms Sasson said. She said the ministry had created a budget for "various developments", amounting to 17m shekels (£2.1m) in 2000 and 34m shekels in 2001, and that some of that money went on building outposts.
Israelis began building settlements more than a decade ago to break up Palestinian areas and prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Mr Sharon has repeatedly promised the US he would dismantle the more than 100 outposts, one of Israel's first obligations under the internationally endorsed "road map" peace plan. However, since accepting the road map in 2003, Israel has only removed a few outposts, citing legal difficulties.
Shaul Goldstein, a senior settler leader, said Mr Sharon was deeply involved in the spread of settlements. "The prime minister should look at himself in the mirror and ask himself why and how he did it. He has to be questioned, not us," he said.
Yariv Oppenheimer, head of the anti-settlement group Peace Now, said: "It's something the government did with the settlers, and it's actually the policy of Israel in the West Bank."
The housing minister, Yitzhak Herzog, a member of the moderate Labor party, acknowledged Mr Sharon would have played a key role in setting up the outposts but said the prime minister had had a change of heart and should be praised for ordering a review of the outposts policy.
"The prime minister is displaying unusual courage in the recent period, including on this issue [outposts]," Mr Herzog told Israeli army radio. "The prime minister was connected to this issue, as someone who led the settlement movement ... for many years.
"But to unload the whole story on the prime minister is not right," Mr Herzog said.
The Labor party joined a coalition with Sharon late last year to help to push ahead a proposed withdrawal this summer from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.
Transferring control of Jericho and four other West Bank settlements to the Palestinians was part of the truce package to which the recently elected Mr Abbas agreed, but the plan was delayed after a suicide bombing killed five Israelis in Tel Aviv on February 25.
Mr Abbas said surrounding areas could also be transferred if Israeli roadblocks were taken down. "We are not talking about towns, but ... surrounding areas," he said. "If there are [Israeli] checkpoints, they must be removed."
Israeli roadblocks are a key concern for the Palestinians. Dozens of such barriers have limited people's movement in and out of the towns, strangling social and economic life. Israel insists they are necessary for security.