Israel Passes Contentious Palestinian Land-grab Bill in Late Night Vote

Right praises vote as 'historic day for the settlement movement' | Bill allows Israel to declare private Palestinian land state property | Israeli opposition warns: bill will land Israel in The Hague.

Israeli lawmakers vote to pass contentious Palestinian land-grab bill in late night vote. February 6, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Israeli lawmakers on Monday evening passed 60-52 a contentious bill that would retroactively legalize the expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land, in a move Palestinians said could the kill chances of reaching a peace deal.

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There were fears that the vote would be delayed, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters earlier Monday it would go ahead as planned after he had briefed the White House on the vote.

Far-right lawmaker MK Bezalel Smotrich praised the bill's passage into law, saying it was a "historic day for the settlement movement and for Israel. Today Israel decreed that developing settlement in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] is an Israeli interest. From here we move on to expanding Israeli sovereignty [on the West Bank] and continuing to build and develop settlements across the land."

The sponsor of the bill, Habayit Hayehudi Chairwoman Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, praised the bill's passage, saying that "this is a historic day, with the passage of a historic law. The homes of citizens who made their home in Judea and Samaria, with the encouragement of Israeli governments, will no longer be a target for extremist left-wing organizations that seek to destroy and to damage settlement." 

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She added that "the president of the Supreme Court must recognize that the High Court of Justice cannot be dragged into intervening in a law that concerns an issue that is above all an issue of foreign policy. In the event that it is, we will act to advance the override clause and the imposition of Israeli law in Judea and Samaria."

B'Tselem condemned the bill's passage, saying it "proves yet again that Israel has no intention of ending its control over the Palestinians or its theft of their land. Lending a semblance of legality to this ongoing act of plunder is a disgrace or the state and its legislature. Passing the bill mere weeks after UN Security Council Resolution 2334 is a slap in the face of the international community. While enshrining the dispossession in law is a new development, in practice it is another facet of the massive land grab carried out openly for decades by declaring 'state land.'"

Isaac Herzog speaking at the Knesset special session for Rehavam Ze'evi, November 1, 2016.
Emil Salman

Peace Now called the passage "a stain on the Knesset and it bears the signature of a single person, Benjamin Netanyahu, who abandons Israel's future to the hands of an extremist minority and supports a law that he and the attorney general have warned against. Netanyahu is willing to enable the theft of land, to endanger Israeli army officers and to drag Israel to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and all for the sake of his own political survival. In the face of this madness, we will be the responsible adult and we shall block this dangerous law in Israel's High Court of Justice."

After the bill was passed in its second and third readings, the organization announced that it indeed intended to go to the High Court over it. 

Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel said it would take the law to the high court. Suhad Bashara, a lawyer for the organization, said the law "severely infringe on Palestinians residents and refugees' right to private property."

Chairman of the opposition, lawmaker Isaac Herzog, took to the Knesset's podium ahead of the vote and warned that "it was not too late to stop the horror of a freight train. The train leaves from here will only stop at The Hague," Herzog said in reference to the International Criminal Court.

"Its cars will carry international indictments against Israeli and Jewish soldiers and officers. This indictment will be signed by the prime minister of Israel."

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A picture taken on February 6, 2017 shows Israel's controversial separation barrier dividing east Jerusalem (L) from the West Bank village of Anata (R).
THOMAS COEX/AFP

The purpose of the bill, a revised version says, is to “regulate settlement in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and allow its continued establishment and development.”

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit continues to oppose the bill, and figures in his circle stressed Sunday that he does not intend to defend it, even in its current formulation, in the event that petitions against it are filed in the High Court of Justice.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett praised the vote as proof that "determination pays," a thinly-veiled reference to behind the scenes political tensions between himself and Netanyahu. Bennett and his Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party pushed for the bill's vote, while Netanyahu feared it would anger the new administration in Washington.

"To our friends in the opposition who express surprise in a nationalist government's passing a bill to benefit settlement: This is democracy. The cabinet is carrying out exactly the purpose for which it was elected: to govern," Bennett said.

Bennett asked to address the Knesset during the deliberation on the bill, but was rebuffed by the Prime Minister's Office. Sources in the Knesset claimed that PMO officials feared that Bennett would claim credit for the bill's passage in the absence of Netanyahu, on his way back to Israel after meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London. During their meeting, May expressed opposition to the bill and said that if passed, it will create many problems for Israel's friends throughout the world. 

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The vote on the bill, which paves the way for legalizing illegal construction on Palestinian land throughout the West Bank was postponed about a month and a half ago. According to the most recent version of the bill obtained by Haaretz, in the first stage, enforcement measures against 16 settlements and outposts will be suspended for a period of one year from the publication of the law.

Over the course of the year, a decision will be made as to whether these lands can be expropriated.

Afterward, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked may expand the list by means of an order and with the approval of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Outside the Knesset plenum this afternoon, before the deliberations on the bill, opposition Knesset members announced that they do not intend to cooperate with the coalition, and the pre-vote session was adjourned. As a result, the prolonged voting session that was expected to continue into the night was significantly shortened, and instead of some three hours it is expected to last less than one hour. The opposition's decision to withdraw its objections it expected to significantly contract the schedule, so that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to return tonight from his visit to London, will presumably not get back in time to vote on the bill in the Knesset.

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Haaretz reported Sunday that Netanyahu was seeking to postpone the bill, but on Monday he said that he has informed the White House of his intention of putting the legislation to a vote and said he will return from the U.K. on Monday night to participate. However, he failed to arrive in time to vote himself.

British Prime Minister May, for her part, warned Netanyahu against the vote, saying it was unhelpful and would make things harder of Israel's friends abroad.

The bill would allow the state to declare private Palestinian land on which settlements or outposts were built, “in good faith or at the state’s instruction” as government property, and deny its owners the right to use or hold those lands until there is a diplomatic resolution of the status of the territories.

The measure provides a mechanism for compensating Palestinians whose lands will be seized. A landowner can receive an annual usage payment of 125 percent of the land’s value as determined by an assessment committee for renewable periods of 20 years, or an alternate plot of land if this is possible, whichever he chooses.

The measure was also revised on Sunday to add another 16 settlements and outposts to the list of potential places where the bill may be applied.

Demolition orders against homes built on land claimed by Palestinian owners would be frozen for a year pending proceedings to determine whether the state may seize the land.

The stay of legal and administrative proceedings would apply to properties in the settlements of Ofra, Eli, Netiv Ha’avot, Kokhav Hashahar, Mitzpe Kramim, Alon Moreh, Ma’aleh Mikhmash, Shavei Shomron, Kedumim, Psagot, Beit El, Yitzhar, Har Bracha, Modi’in Illit, Nokdim and Kokhav Yaakov.

The measure would also empower Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to add more settlements and outposts to the list of areas where property may be seized from Palestinians, with the approval of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.