Photographer: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Israel Legalizes West Bank Outposts, Setting Up Court Fight

  • Controversial law expropriates private Palestinian land
  • Vote takes place while PM Netanyahu is en route from London

Israel’s parliament legalized unauthorized West Bank settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land, drawing international censure and setting up a court fight where the politically charged law may be overturned.

Palestinians saw another attempt to crush their dream of independence. The European Union postponed a Feb. 28 meeting with Israel meant to signify improved relations, the Haaretz newspaper reported. Jordan, traditionally a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, denounced the law.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to delay a vote until his White House meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump next week. Ultimately he allowed the vote to take place under pressure from pro-settlement forces in his government, in part because he knows the high court will strike the law down, according to an Israeli official close to the prime minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential matters. Parliament approved the bill in a 60-52 vote while Netanyahu was out of the country.

The law legalizes homes in unauthorized outposts across the West Bank -- many just a jumble of rusting mobile homes hastily towed to the sites -- and offers Palestinian landowners compensation. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said some of the bill’s provisions are illegal and he would not be able to defend them from challenges in the country’s highest court.

The law “constitutes the latest attack on the two-state solution,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday. “I call on Israel to respect its international obligations and withdraw this law.”

The legislation upended a 1979 Israeli Supreme Court ruling forbidding settlement construction on land privately owned by Palestinians, while allowing it to proceed on unclaimed land captured in the 1967 Middle East war. It also caught Netanyahu in a political vise.

Reversed Position

Netanyahu originally opposed the bill, knowing it would draw condemnation from abroad and a court challenge at home. Eventually he endorsed the legislation, which was championed by his chief rival, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party.

The court-ordered evacuation of another unauthorized settlement outpost last week turned up the heat on Netanyahu to prove his pro-settlement credentials, at a time when multiple police investigations into his conduct have weakened him politically.

“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,” the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now said in a statement. Peace Now’s director, Avi Buskila, told Israel Radio he hoped a challenge to the law would be ready within days at Israel’s highest court.

Selective Legislation

The bill is unusual in that it forces the transfer of property from the legal owner to another person who has built there illegally, said Professor Yuval Shany, an Israeli specialist in international law and a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. It’s also problematic that it targets only Palestinian-owned land, Shany said.

The compensation clauses are an attempt to salvage the law’s constitutionality, but “the main problem is not with a lack of mitigating elements, but really with the very purpose of the infringement of private property,” Shany told reporters on a conference call. The court, he predicted, will “be very skeptical about the propriety of the confiscation.”

Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary General Saeb Erekat said in a statement that the law would “legalize theft of Palestinian land.” The Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement that “the response should be in the International Criminal Court.”

“Our public is boiling,” said Husam Zomlot, an Abbas adviser who has been meeting with student leaders at West Bank universities this week to prevent protests from turning violent. “We are trying to keep the lid on, but I don’t know how long we can convince our youth that there’s still hope.”

Ends Distinction

Until Monday night the Israeli government had distinguished between the more than 120 authorized West Bank settlements, where more than 400,000 people live, and unsanctioned outposts erected without following procedures but usually with the knowledge of government officials.

The international community has tended to see all Jewish settlement activity in areas Israel won in 1967 as illegal or illegitimate. In December, the UN Security Council deemed settlements a “flagrant violation” of international law.

The retroactive legalization of outposts follows close on Israel’s recent announcement of plans to build more than 6,000 new homes on land Palestinians want for a state.

The prime minister’s office didn’t reply to a request for comment on the bill’s passage while Netanyahu was flying home from a meeting with U.K. leaders. Speaking Monday afternoon in London, Netanyahu expressed general support for the legislation and said he had kept the Trump White House -- which Israel sees as more sympathetic to its settlement policies than the Obama administration -- in the loop.

“We do not surprise our friends and we keep them updated,” he said.

Last week, Sean Spicer, Trump’s White House press secretary, put out a statement on settlements that took a middle ground.

“While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal,” Spicer said.

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