Israeli lawmakers pass controversial Regulation Bill to legalize West Bank outposts

Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem -- such as Har Homa which was originally built in the 1990s -- are considered to be in breach of the Oslo accords by the Palestinians but not by Israel, which does not see east Jerusalem as occupied territory
Ahmad Gharabli (AFP/File)
Controversial law effectively legalizes some 4,000 settler homes built on private Palestinian land

The Israeli Knesset on Monday evening passed the second and third readings of a controversial bill paving the way for Israel to recognize some 4,000 settler homes illegally built on private Palestinian land, despite a US call for restraint last week.

The so-called Regulation Bill went before lawmakers at 20:30 GMT and received 60 votes in favor opposed to just 52 against in its third reading.

It was initially uncertain that a vote would take place on Monday after being repeatedly postponed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly said the day before that he wanted to coordinate the matter with US President Donald Trump prior to finalization.

However, such doubts were lifted when the premier told reporters accompanying him to London on Monday that the vote would go ahead after he had coordinated with the Trump administration.

Netanyahu did not participate in the vote since he was returning from a trip to London.

The law met with fierce opposition within the parliament, with warnings that it would harm Israel, and the United Nations saying it would diminish chances for peace.

Speaking after the law was finalised, Bezalel Smotrich of the far-right Jewish Home, who was one of the forces behind the legislation, thanked the American people for electing Donald Trump as president, "without whom the law would have probably not passed".

Ahead of the vote, opposition chief and Labour leader Isaac Herzog lashed out against the "despicable law" that he said would undermine the country's Jewish majority.

"The vote tonight isn't for or against the settlers, rather Israel's interests," Herzog said.

The law would "annex millions of Palestinians into Israel", he warned, and expose Israeli soldiers and politicians to lawsuits at international criminal courts.

Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis of Netanyahu's Likud party said the argument was over the right to the Land of Israel.

"All of the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people," he told Herzog, using the biblical term that included the West Bank. "This right is eternal and indisputable."

Critics slam the proposal, saying it effectively legalizes the "theft" of more than 800 hectares of land that even Israeli law has accepted as Palestinian.

It is seen as another step towards at least partial annexation of the West Bank, a key demand for parts of Netanyahu's right-wing cabinet, including the hardline Jewish Home party.

The bill could however still be challenged, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman saying last week: "The chance that it will be struck down by the Supreme Court is 100 percent."

Its defenders argue the bill will allow settlers to live without fear of being driven from their homes -- many of which they have lived in for years.

They accuse Israel's justice system of being controlled by left-wing anti-settlement groups.

Thomas COEX (AFP)

The bill was directly inspired by the lengthy saga around Amona where the few hundred residents of the West Bank outpost were evicted after the Supreme Court ruled their homes were built on private Palestinian land.

The international community considers all Jewish settlements to be illegal, but Israel distinguishes between those it sanctions and those it does not, dubbed outposts.

Demolitions and removal of the buildings began on Monday.

- International concern -

Palestinian owners would be compensated financially or with other land.

The bill would "legalize" 53 other outposts, making them permanent and potentially allowing them to expand, according to the anti-settlement organisation Peace Now.

More than 3,800 homes would be "legalized", the NGO said.

Prior to the bill's passing, UN envoy for the Middle East peace process Nickolay Mladenov said on Monday he was "concerned" by the bill as it would "enable the continued use of privately owned Palestinian land for Israeli settlements,” urging Israeli legislators to reconsider the move.

“The bill has been deemed unconstitutional by the Attorney General of Israel and is in contravention of international law,” he stated.

Mladenov also added that "if adopted into law, it will have far-reaching legal consequences for Israel and greatly diminish the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace."

And that, “all core issues should be resolved between the parties through direct negotiations on the basis of relevant Security Council resolutions and mutual agreements."

Menahem Kahana (AFP/File)

Netanyahu is reportedly under immense pressure by the leaders of the far-Right Orthodox party, Jewish Home, who threatened that if Netanyahu torpedoes the legislation, they would consequently “topple his government,” reported the Jerusalem Post.

However, he assured that he is "acting responsibly and not according to any kind of dictates.”

Israel will be looking to Trump's reaction, however, as the new US president has indicated he is far less hostile to settlement expansion than his predecessor Barack Obama.

Since Trump's inauguration, Israel has announced more than 6,000 new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, seen as key parts of any future Palestinian state.

For the first time last week his administration said settlement expansion "may not be helpful" for peace prospects, but also broke with previous administrations by saying settlements were not an obstacle to peace.

Yesha Council

The White House statement was interpreted as a message to Netanyahu and his government that the US administration intended to reserve its options.

Netanyahu had on Sunday tried to delay the review of the bill, while coordinating with Trump ahead of their February 15 meeting, Israeli media reported.

But Jewish Home was inflexible. Bezalel Smotrich, a Jewish Home MP, has threatened to withdraw support for the government if the vote does not go ahead.

Jewish Home has eight seats in parliament, with Netanyahu's government holding 66 of the 120 seats.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has warned the government that the law could be unconstitutional and risks exposing Israel to international prosecution for war crimes.

(Staff with agencies)

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