The move comes despite a meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, late last week, in which Shalom reaffirmed his government's commitment to remove illegal outposts in the West Bank.

The new outpost, which consists of a series of empty caravans, has been erected on land belonging to the Swaiti family from the village of Faqeeqees, near Dura, and is about 300m away from the larger settlement of Nahal Nagahot, according to Palestinian cartographer Abd al-Hadi Hantash.

Together with another illegal outpost built during the current intifada and known as Mitzpi Lahav, Nagahot and the new outpost form a triangle of illegal settlements that effectively annex some 500 square kilometres of Palestinian land.

The strategic placement of the outpost near Nagahot, an illegal military settlement dating back to 1982, is part of a larger Israeli policy of expanding existing settlements, rather than building new ones, Hantash told Aljazeera.net.

Some settler outposts are little
 more than an empty caravan

"They've been attempting to establish an increased presence in Nagahot and convert it to a civilian settlement since the start of the intifada by building religious schools in it, erecting new outposts around it, and bringing in new settlers to live there," Hantash said.

Hantash says he has little faith  in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's promises to evacuate outposts.

"I can say clearly that they are liars. The Sharon government says it will take them out, but if it does remove them, then it will simply relocate them. As a result the outposts will increase, not decrease, and this is what we see happening in practice. I'm talking from experience."

Settlers' writ

Abd al-Nasir Swaiti is a member of the Swaiti family affected by the land grab. His family owns the original Ottoman Turkish deed for the land, and his father has been fighting the outposts in the Israeli courts for years now. He is distraught but not surprised over the latest encroachments.

"We've known this was going to happen for over two weeks now - we saw them bringing in the caravans. But what can I say? We've filed so many complaints over the years, and been to so many hearings. And all for what?" said Swaiti.

"The Sharon government says it will take [the illegal Jewish outposts] out, but if it does remove them, then it will simply relocate them"

Abd al-Hadi Hantash,
Palestinian cartographer

He said about 2500 square kilometres of his family's land have been confiscated by Israeli forces and made completely inaccessible since the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada in October 2000.

Settlers, with the backing of the Israeli government, have planted trees and built makeshift shelters on 1500 square kilometres out of the total confiscated land.

"Two months ago, the Israeli courts issued an order saying that the illegal outpost of [Mitzpi Lahav] must be evacuated. Now, not only is that outpost still here, but a new one is being erected."

The illegal outpost has been built with almost no media fanfare, despite Sharon's pledge to President George Bush at the Aqaba Summit last year that such structures in the West Bank would be removed immediately.

Getting away

A year on, Washington's reaction is tepid at best. On Tuesday Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed "disappointment" at the rate at which outposts have been removed - comments that were brushed aside by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom following his meeting with Powell on Thursday.

Palestinians are helpless when it
comes to preventing land grabs

"We've removed tens of outposts already. There are 28 left. We gave all the list to the American administration and we are working together in order to implement our commitments in the near future," Shalom said.

Shalom added that Washington and Israel saw eye to eye on a "very, very long series of understandings".

An Israeli army spokesperson, contacted by Aljazeera.net, declined to comment on the huge gap between the Sharon government's words and actions on the ground.

The Israeli human-rights group, B'tselem, says the establishment of settlements on the West Bank not only violates international humanitarian law, it also infringes on international human-rights law, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territories.

Illegal practice

Palestinians say the weak-willed US response will further erode its credibility in the region. "Unfortunately, the United States has really demonstrated that it has an inability to hold Israel accountable to standards of international law," said Michael Tarazi, a legal adviser to the PLO, said.

"We've removed tens of outposts already. There are 28 left. We gave all the list to the American administration and we are working together..."

Silvan Shalom,
Israeli Foreign Minister

Yaqub Shahin, director-general of the Palestinian Ministry of Information, says that by turning a blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion, the Bush administration is effectively legitimising this illegal practice.

"Bush has for all practical purposes legitimised Sharon's goal to change the borders of the state to include more Palestinian land under the banner of 'security, security, security'," he said.

Shahin says the new illegal outpost in Hebron, like the others before it, is simply a means to "swallow up" more Palestinian land. "In reality, they do not always confiscate Palestinian farmers' land around the settlements, but in practice the farmers are denied access to their land so it's as if it has been de facto confiscated."

'Recurring farce'

Many Palestinians are convinced that Sharon's talk of dismantling outposts is just that - talk. Take political analyst and newspaper columnist Hani Masri, who says the number of outposts was much greater than the list of 28 outposts that the Israeli leader gave President Bush at Aqaba.

Sharon's soft corner for settlers
rules out a drastic policy change

"The so-called removal of random illegal outposts, of which there are nearly 130 throughout the West Bank, is what I call a recurring farce," Masri says.

"Israeli says 'for legal reasons we cannot remove them'. And the ones they do remove are simply relocated at night or away from the eye of the media."

Since 1967, each Israeli government has invested significant resources in establishing and expanding Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, both in terms of area and population. As a result of this policy, today some 380,000 Israeli citizens live on the settlements on the West Bank, including those established in East Jerusalem.

Sharon's inability to remove settler outposts in the West Bank, says Masri, casts serious doubt on his "unilateral disengagement" plan from the Gaza Strip.

"If he cannot even remove mere caravans bereft of any people, how will he be able to pull off a complete withdrawal of settlements from the Gaza Strip? It raises a million questions about how serious they are."