Israel's Ruling Coalition Tries to Push Back Vote on Legalizing Seizure of Palestinian Land

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The Palestinian village of Awarta is in the foreground and the Jewish settlement of Etmar on the background, West Bank, January 26, 2017.
The Palestinian village of Awarta is in the foreground and the Jewish settlement of Etmar is in the background, West Bank, January 26, 2017.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

Israel's ruling coalition is seeking to postpone a vote slated for Monday on a bill that would legalize Israeli land grabs in the West Bank. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who initially opposed the bill, was planning to submit a revised version of the legislation for final approval.

Coalition Chairman MK David Bitan (Likud) said the vote will take place on Tuesday, but Likud lawmakers said they vote is taking place on Monday.

The revised measure could apply to 16 West Bank settlements and outposts. Netanyahu will submit the bill to the Knesset for the final second and third readings on Monday, and, while the opposition plans to filibuster it, the bill is expected to pass into law.

Earlier on Monday, Bitan (Likud) asked Zionist Union faction Chairman MK Merav Michaeli to agree to postpone the vote. Bitan offered that the vote would be pushed back to next week in return for the opposition's willingness not to filibuster it. Michaeli, a member of Israel's biggest opposition party, declined. "I made it clear to Bitan that I'm against delaying the vote," Michaeli said. Her party, she noted, is for scrapping the bill, but "if Likud wants to withdraw from the legislation, they should do so themselves."

It was unclear whether the bid to reschedule the vote was part of efforts to torpedo the controversial legislation or if the coalition was only trying to avoid a filibuster. Opposition parties have filed 227 objections to the bill, which means that they could in theory address the Knesset for almost two weeks straight. This is however unlikely.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit continues to oppose the legislation, dubbed the "regularization bill," with jutice officials saying he is not prepared to defend the new version in court, either. Despite his objections, however, the bill is expected to pass.

The bill would allow the state to declare private Palestinian land on which settlements or outposts were built “innocently 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 term “innocently” refers to instances in which settlers ostensibly did not know they were building on privately-owned Palestinian land.  

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

The revised measure specifies 16 settlements and outposts where the bill might 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 opposition plans to try to filibuster; it has filed 227 objections to the bill. The objections include demands to change the wording of some of the bill’s sections, but many of them are merely provocative requests, like demanding that the name of the bill be changed to “the fraud bill,” or that clauses be added stating that the bill is aimed at serving the electorate of Habayit Hayehudi, the party headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Coalition chairman David Bitan during a Knesset faction meeting, January 16, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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

The bill empowers 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.

The measure, however, will not apply to the Amona outpost, which the High Court has ordered dismantled by February 8; nor to nine homes in Ofra and 16 homes in Netiv Ha’avot that the court has already ruled must be demolished.

A survey by Haaretz indicates that the bill is expected to pass. The Kulanu faction, which in the past had fought against any legislation that would undermine the status of the Supreme Court, is expected to support the new version since it explicitly excludes the legalization of Amona and the homes in Ofra and Netiv Ha’avot that the court has already ordered demolished. 

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said the law should not be advanced and only two weeks ago said, “it will probably never be legislated,” but his Yisrael Beiteinu party said it plans to support the bill. The ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, said they would submit to coalition discipline and vote for the bill.

Israeli settler youths build a new wooden structure in the settlement outpost of Amona.Credit: AFP

One Likud minister told Haaretz that the bill’s progress was carefully planned by Netanyahu and that despite the reports of recent weeks, he had never changed his mind on the matter and had planned to support the bill all along. 

“That’s what was agreed from the start,” the minister said. “The plan was that the law would be advanced after the Obama era if no other arrangement could be for this issue could be found.”

Another Likud source told Haaretz, “It was clear all along that despite Netanyahu’s objections to the law, he couldn’t allow himself to obstruct its progress and be perceived by right-wing voters as the one who blocked the measure. Netanyahu simply didn’t want to give this gift to [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett and upgrade the status of Habayit Hayehudi as the primary fighter for the settlements, as opposed to Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. The prime minister would prefer to be portrayed among his voters as supporting the law, while turning the final decision on its validity over to the High Court of Justice.”

In response to a query from Haaretz, Attorney General Mendelblit issued the following statement: “The attorney general’s position regarding the legal obstacles to advancing the regularization bill remains, even after the removal of the retroactive clause [relating to Amona, Ofra, and Netiv Ha’avot]. This is because the law, even in its new version, is unconstitutional and contradicts the State of Israel’s legal obligations under international law.”

Mendelblit has gone on record as saying that the bill seriously undermines property rights, even if the suspension of usage rights is only temporary. “The harm to property rights that stem from this bill do not fulfill the most basic conditions that the law applies to forced seizure of property rights,” he told a legal conference in December.

MK Yael German (Yesh Atid), one of the leaders of the opposition to the bill on the special committee that was established to advance it in the Knesset, was critical of the new version of the bill unveiled yesterday. 

“The government is choosing yet again to undermine that Supreme Court and the status of the State of Israel as a state of law,” German said. “The regularization bill belongs at the cabinet table. The government could decide on annexation, but instead it’s choosing a cowardly and irresponsible path; it knows the law will be struck down by the Supreme Court, but it’s choosing to pass the buck to it.

“Passing the law conveys to us and to the nations of the world that the government couldn’t care less about international law and thus is removing [Israel] from the family of law-abiding nations, putting Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Israeli citizens at risk,” German said.

Lawmaker Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Habayit Hayehudi) is expected to conduct the special committee session that will prepare the bill for its second and third readings. According to Moalem-Refaeli, who was also one of the bill’s sponsors, “This is a historic achievement and a strategic event for the settlement movement. It’s another step in normalizing the lives of thousands of citizens. The fate of thousands of homes will no longer be dependent on the whims of left-wing organizations.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely said, “Justice must be done, which is why the regularization law is crucial. It’s inconceivable to demolish homes when it’s entirely clear that no Palestinian will live there. The regularization bill could provide a compensation solution for homes that were discovered after-the-fact to have been built on private land, and the state can use the new legal policy to prevent the destruction of homes for nothing.”   

The new bill 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 bill also sets out a timeline. Palestinian land would be registered as government property within a year of the law going into effect, and the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria will assume rights to the lands within six months of the law taking effect.

Within 60 days of the registration or the assumption of the rights, the authorities will assign the usage and holding rights to these lands to the settlers whose homes were built on them.

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