Israeli law normalizing colonial settlements denounced as ‘land theft’ and a ‘war crime’

Published February 7th, 2017 - 12:00 GMT
Palestinians hold a protest beside illegal Israeli settlements. (AFP/File)
Palestinians hold a protest beside illegal Israeli settlements. (AFP/File)

Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed into law the contested outpost "Regularization bill" on Monday, granting official Israeli governmental recognition to more than a dozen illegal settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank established on private Palestinian lands, as observers warned of the potentially disastrous effects of such legislation on Palestinians and on hopes of a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The legislation passed its final reading late on Monday evening with 60 votes in favor to 52 against, despite uncertainty over whether the vote would be postponed at the demand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The law states that any settlements built in the occupied West Bank "in good faith" -- without knowledge that the land upon which it was built was privately owned by Palestinians -- could be officially recognized by Israel pending minimal proof of governmental support in its establishment and some form of compensation to the Palestinian landowners.

As it stands, the law would affect the status of 16 outposts, although Israeli media reports indicated that more could be included in the future.

Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has repeatedly stated that the bill contravenes both Israeli and international law and that the Israeli Supreme Court would likely strike it down. Several Israeli NGOs have already indicated that they plan to challenge the law in front of the Supreme Court.

While settler outposts constructed in occupied Palestinian territory were considered illegal by the Israeli government, each of the some 196 government-approved Israeli settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, have also been established in direct violation of international law.

Palestinian and international denunciation

Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary-General Saeb Erekat, said that the law was "legaliz(ing) theft of Palestinian land."

"All Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestine are illegal and a war crime regardless of any law passed by the Israeli parliament or any decision taken by any Israeli judge," Erekat added in a written statement. "It is overdue time to stop treating Israel as a state above the law."

PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi stated that the law gave "clear license to the settlers to embark on a land grab in the occupied West Bank with impunity."

"Such a law signals the final annexation of the West Bank," she said. "This also proves beyond doubt that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his extremist, racist coalition government are deliberately breaking the law and destroying the very foundations of the two-state solution and the chances for peace and stability."

Meanwhile, the Arab Joint List, the Knesset coalition representing parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel, denounced the law as an "assassination of the peaceful solution," Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam reported.

Palestinian legal NGO BADIL noted the significance of the new law, which would impose Israeli civil law in the occupied Palestinian territory in an unprecedented way.

"The bill in question does not only legalize seizing Palestinian private property, but also legalizes annexing the occupied land, especially as this bill was approved by the Israeli Knesset and not through military orders," BADIL director Nidal al-Azza told Ma'an.

"The confiscation of private property and imposition of the Israeli Knesset's legal power over the occupied land are grave violations of international humanitarian and customary law, and constitute a war crime," al-Azza added. "Moreover, this de facto annexation amounts to colonization, which is also prohibited under international law."

Mixed Israeli reactions amid fears of legal repercussions

The passage of the bill was hailed by Israel's far-right parties, which have formed an increasingly vocal segment of the ruling coalition and advocate for settlements and the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territory.

Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, an ultra-right figure who has been the main champion of the bill and has presented himself as an advocate for settlers in contrast to Netanyahu's stance deemed as too soft on the issue, simply tweeted "Revolution." in the wake of the final vote.

MK Bezalel Smotrich, who, like Bennett, is a member of the Jewish Home party, thanked US citizens for electing Donald Trump as president, "without whom the law would have probably not passed," the Times of Israel reported.

Israeli officials have openly stated their belief that a Trump presidency would facilitate the dramatic expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory, while consolidating right-wing demands to annex the West Bank. More than 6,000 housing units have been approved for construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank by the Israeli government since Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20.

The White House has thus far refrained from making an official statement on the passage of the outpost "Regularization law" -- which has also been referred to as the "Formalization" or "Legalization bill."

Israeli politicians in the opposition expressed their disapproval of the legislation ahead of the vote, not out of concern for the effects such a violation of international law and human rights might have on Palestinians, but rather on its consequences on a two-state solution maintaining Israel's identity as a Jewish state, and the possible end of Israeli impunity on the international scene.

"Our opposition to the bill stems from our opposition to annexation. It does not stem from the problem that there is a nation of (Israeli) residents (in the West Bank) or that there are (Israeli) communities (in the West Bank), but rather with the entry of thousands of Palestinians into the Jewish State," MK Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition, was quoted by news outlet Ynet as saying.

"There are a few more minutes to stop this train of horror before it proceeds on its way. This train will depart from here and stop at the final station of The Hague," Herzog added. "International indictments will leave its carriages against Jewish soldiers and officers and Israelis. The Prime Minister of Israel (will be responsible) for these indictments."

Israeli NGO Peace Now, which supports a two-state solution, announced on Monday evening that it would submit a petition against the law to the Israeli Supreme Court in conjunction with legal rights organizations Yesh Din and Adalah.

"Tonight it became clear that Netanyahu is willing to compromise the future of both Israelis and Palestinians in order to satisfy a small group of extreme settlers for the sake of his own political survival," Peace Now said in a statement. "In light of this madness, we must act as the responsible adults and turn to the Supreme Court in order to strike down this dangerous law."

Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that the law was merely "another facet of the massive land grab carried out openly for decades" by Israeli authorities in the occupied Palestinian territory.

"Lending a semblance of legality to this ongoing act of plunder is a disgrace for the state and its legislature," B'Tselem added.

"Passing the bill mere weeks after UN Security Council Resolution 2334 is a slap in the face of the international community."

While members of the international community have rested the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the discontinuation of illegal Israeli settlements and the establishment of a two-state solution, Israeli leaders have instead shifted further to the right, with more than 50 percent of the ministers in the current Israeli government publicly stating their opposition to a Palestinian state.

A number of Palestinian activists have criticized the two-state solution as unsustainable and unlikely to bring durable peace given the existing political context, proposing instead a binational state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.

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