According to the first, issued by the Israeli Civil Administration's Department for Monitoring Infrastructure, tens of illegal outposts were erected throughout the West Bank during the past six months.

Seventy caravans out of a total of 220 that were approved for transfer to West Bank settlements were relocated to illegal outposts instead, said the report.

Critics say this proves Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government has been tacitly cooperating with the settlers to expand illegal settlement outposts.

The report comes despite Israeli promises throughout the past year to dismantle several illegal settlement outposts. The peace "road map" requires Israel to dismantle all outposts set up after March 2001, when Ariel Sharon was elected into office.

Peace Now report

Earlier this month, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom reaffirmed his government's commitment to remove the 23 outposts they say were erected after this date, in a meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The separation barrier benefits
settlers at Palestinians' expense

But according to a statement issued on Thursday by the Israeli watchdog group Peace Now, 51 illegal settlement outposts - not 23 - have been established since March 2001, with a further 45 established before that date.

The findings are backed up with field research and detailed aerial photographs.

The report says Gaza Strip settlers have expanded the area of their settlements - set for evacuation next year - by as much as 190,000sq metres in recent months.

The group's Settlement Watch Team also discovered that construction on a large road attempting to connect a series of settlement blocs in the West Bank has continued after being halted for a short period of time.

The road would create a continuity of settlements ranging from the Itamar settlement blocs to those in the Jordan Valley and the North West areas of the West Bank.

Stark contradiction

"The building of infrastructure and permanent structures is continuing in the outposts, despite the government's recent declaration of intention to dismantle a number of outposts," the Peace Now statement said.

An Israeli government spokesperson told Aljazeera.net that upon hearing about the Civil Administration report, Minister of Defence Shaul Mofaz "immediately ordered the army to find those [70] caravans and evacuate them".

The spokesperson brushed aside the Peace Now findings, however. Asked about the stark contradiction in numbers, she said: "We see a contradiction, but we can't comment. We don't know where they get their information from."

Peace Now says there is no sign
that settlement activity will end

A spokesperson for Peace Now said he was not surprised, and that the Civil Administration report was "nothing new".

"Israel is continuing to deceive the Israeli public and the world about its settlement activity. It's been going on for more than 35 years now, with no sign that it's going to end," he told Aljazeera.net.

Only three outposts were dismantled in the last months, he said, two of which were simply relocated by the settlers themselves to another location.

Peace Now estimates at least 1500 settlers live in the illegal outposts throughout the West Bank.

Incidentally, US records also show big discrepancies in the numbers of illegal outposts submitted by Baruch Spiegal, Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz's adviser who is coordinating talks on Israel's compliance on dismantling of settlements.

Policy of expansion

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.

Minister of Defence Shaul Mofaz "immediately ordered the army to find those [70] caravans and evacuate them"

Israeli government spokesperson

As a result of this policy, today about 380,000 Israeli citizens live on the settlements on the West Bank, including those established in East Jerusalem.

Sharon is considered the father of the illegal settlement movement.

During the late 1990s, he encouraged settlers to set up outposts on West Bank hilltops, in an effort to prevent transfer of land back to the Palestinians.

According to human-rights groups, the establishment of all settlements on the West Bank, including outposts, violates international humanitarian law and infringes on international human-rights law which prohibits an occupying power from transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territories.