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Israeli land seizure bill ‘an opening to annexation of West Bank’

The Settlement Regulation Bill – which is expected to easily pass a Knesset vote next week – would legalise the seizure of Palestinian private property
Palestinian labourers work on a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, situated on the southern outskirts of Bethlehem, on February 1, 2016. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP
Palestinian labourers work on a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Efrat, situated on the southern outskirts of Bethlehem, on February 1, 2016. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

Jerusalem // A controversial bill that would legalise the seizure of Palestinian private property and cripple hopes for a two-state peace solution is expected to easily pass in a Knesset vote next week.

A vote on the Settlement Regulation Bill – intended as a major step towards annexation of the occupied West Bank – was originally due to take place in December. But it was delayed until now to avoid criticism from the Obama administration and in the expectation that it would be backed by Donald Trump.

While Israeli officials have used a variety of legal devices over the years to lay claim to Palestinian property, including deploying a law dating back to Ottoman times stipulating that agricultural land left fallow reverts to the state, the bill would enable seizures on a grand scale and without the need to resort to legal sleight of hand. Only Israel’s supreme court could overturn it.

In a 1979 case, the court deemed it illegal to build settlements on what is clearly private Palestinian property, limiting such seizures to state land and purported military necessity. The new law would effectively nullify that court decision, opening even more swathes of the West Bank to Israeli settlement.

Masoud Ganaim, an Arab member of the Knesset, said the bill will “legitimise the theft of land from the Palestinians and is an opening to annexation of the rest of the territory in the West Bank. It will change everything, it will close up the path to the peace process and to any two state solution. There won’t be two states, there won’t be a solution”.

Dror Etkes, director of the moderate Israeli Kerem Navot NGO, which monitors land use in the West Bank, said the bill, if passed, would retroactively legalise many thousands of houses built on private property in hundreds of places. These include not only smaller wildcat settlement outposts built with government backing in violation of both Israeli and international law but also established settlements that were constructed partly on private property such as Beit El near Ramallah, and Eli, on the road to Nablus.

“Almost every settlement in the West Bank has parts that were built on private Palestinian property,” said Mr Etkes, who formerly monitored settlements for the Peace Now organisation. “If you don’t understand that stealing property from people, especially people that cannot defend their rights because they are at the bottom of the food chain [is wrong], then you have a moral and personal problem.”

Mr Etkes said the bill violates the Fourth Geneva convention, which stipulates that an occupying power can only seize property for military necessity. Politicians, army officers and settlers could leave themselves open to prosecution in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“This is heading to an escalation of the relations between Israel and the international community, at least parts of the international community that Israel wants to be respected by, namely Europe and sooner or later other countries. Assuming Trump won’t remain president forever, sooner or later it will put Israel in confrontation with important parts of North American politics as well.”

Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi termed the bill “an extreme example of Israel’s continuing tradition of land theft.” He added, “This law is illegal by Israeli legal standards and probably will not pass the Supreme Court. Maybe that’s what Bibi and Lieberman expect and count on.”

NGOs and private individuals are expected to petition Israel’s Supreme court in a bid to have the law declared illegal at the first opportunity.

Israel’s hard-right politicians have defended the bill against Arab and left-wing criticism.

Bezalel Smotrich, a Knesset member from the hard-right Jewish Home party that is part of the ruling coalition, said seizing Palestinian private property complies with democratic norms. “Every democratic country confiscates property for the good of the public,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “The settlement activity is a public purpose, not a private purpose.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennet went further by hailing the bill as “leading the way to annexation” of the West Bank.

Rami Mansour, a leading journalist among the Arab citizens of Israel who edits the Arab 48 website, last month called upon Israel’s Arab citizens to reassess their participation in the Knesset in light of the settlements bill, which “changes the rules of the political game.”

“Parliaments generally deal with laws inside their country,” he said. “The United States doesn’t legislate laws that apply to India. But here Israel is legislating a law that applies to territory not under its sovereignty. It is legislating a law to expropriate from Palestinians not by means of military orders but by legislation in contravention of previous practice. This is antidemocratic and turns the Knesset into the tool of the right.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Updated: February 1, 2017 04:00 AM

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