Israel has commissioned a task force to look at ways to legalise illegal outposts in the West Bank [Reuters]

The US has said it opposes "any effort to legalise" illegal settlement outposts on Palestinian land, after the Israeli government set up a panel to explore ways to do so.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, announced on Tuesday the establishment of a new committee charged with finding ways to legalise settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land.

In a statement on Wednesday, the US state department said: "We oppose any effort to legalise settlement outposts, which is unhelpful to our peace efforts and would contradict Israeli commitments and obligations."

At a news briefing on Tuesday, the state department said: "The United States has a clear policy; we do not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity."

Outposts are built on hilltops overlooking Palestinian towns and villages by Israeli settlers without government approval, and in direct contravention of international law.

The sizes of these outposts vary between just a few trailers, to a collection of mobile homes. Many are built as extensions to already established settlements, which are illegal under international law.

The decision to set up a task force was taken after heavy pressure from the settler lobby and right-wing activists following the demolition in early September of three structures in the Migron outpost near Ramallah.

The state department said: "We call again on both parties to take constructive actions to promote peace and avoid actions that complicate this process or undermine trust.

"We urge both parties to take advantage of the Quartet proposal and return to direct talks."

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, handed over a historic request to Ban Ki-moon, the UN chief, on September 23 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly asking the UN to admit the state of Palestine as a full member.

The US has promised to veto the move and led the Quartet powers in calling for the Palestinians and Israel to resume direct peace talks within a month and commit to seeking a deal by the end of 2012.

Victoria Nuland, the state department spokeswoman, said on Tuesday that the Quartet of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN called for "a first preliminary meeting of the parties" on October 23 in Jordan.

Backing off that specific time and location, Nuland said the Quartet was still trying to broker a meeting before the end of the month, one that could he held in "Jordan or somewhere else".

Source: Agencies