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Israel’s High Court hears petitions against settlement legalization law

A new Israeli law legalises dozens of wildcat settlement outposts such as Kfar Tapuah West
Jaafar Ashtiyeh (AFP/File)

Israel’s High Court of Justice convened on Sunday to hear two petitions against controversial legislation which allows the state to expropriate privately owned Palestinian lands and retroactively legalize unsanctioned West Bank settlement outposts.

Attorney Harel Arnon, argued in defense of the legislation in place of attorney-general Avichai Mandelblit, who has warned the government the law could be unconstitutional and risked exposing Israel to international prosecution for war crimes.

Israeli public radio quoted him as saying in court that to disqualify legislation passed by parliament would be "abetting a coup against this administration."

It would be, he added, "the dismemberment of the sovereignty of the Knesset".

The so called “Regulation Law” was passed in February 2017, and allows Israel to expropriate privately owned Palestinian lands on which illegal settlement outposts have been built under two conditions: First, that the outposts were either established “in good faith” or with government support; and second, that Palestinian owners receive compensation for the land.

Analysts say the law paves the way for the legalization of nearly 4,000 illegally-built settlement homes in the West Bank.

The legislation was frozen by the High Court in August 2017 pending its ruling on two petitions filed against it by the heads of the local councils of 23 Palestinian villages along with 13 rights groups led by Yesh Din, Peace Now and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Jaafar ASHTIYEH (AFP)

The petitions argue that the law violates Israel’s 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and does not provide Palestinians landowners any legal options for opposing expropriation should they refuse compensation.

"The clear, declared purpose of the law, which seeks to privilege the interests of one group on an ethnic basis and leads to the dispossession of the Palestinians, leaves no doubt that this law involves crimes under the convention," the petition read as cited by AFP.

The court’s ultimate decision on the law is expected to have far-reaching implications.

Upholding the law would lead to widespread condemnation from the majority of the international community which views Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal and impediments to peace.

It could also magnify scrutiny of Israel at the International Criminal Court, where the Palestinians recently filed a referral on the issue of settlements deeming them “the single most dangerous threat to Palestinian lives and livelihoods".

Striking down the law, on the other hand, would enrage Israel’s right-wing government and could prompt it to push to advance proposed legislation empowering parliament with the ability to override the High Court of Justice's authority.

Ahead of the expanded nine-justice panel hearing on Sunday, right-wing activists launched a “stacked deck” campaign against the High Court, accusing it of consistently ruling “180 degrees different from...the elected officials and the majority of the public.”

“Unfortunately, the High Court of Justice has proven again and again that petitions filed by Palestinians and left-wing NGOs are determined in advance and the game is rigged,” activists, identified as the Forum of communities in support of the Regulation Law, wrote in various newspaper advertisements.

MENAHEM KAHANA (AFP)

It was not known on Sunday when the court would deliver its ruling.

Israeli settlements are seen as illegal under international law and as major obstacles to peace as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.

Israel differentiates between settlements it has approved and those it has not.

Those without approval are referred to as outposts and tend to be populated by hard-line religious nationalists who see the entire West Bank as part of Israel.

Israel has several times given retroactive approval to outposts, and last year work began on the first completely new government-sanctioned settlement built in the Palestinian territories in some 25 years.

Israel faced sharp criticism from the administration of former US president Barack Obama over settlement construction, but that has not been the case with Trump's White House.

European nations and the United Nations maintain strong opposition to settlement building.

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