Explained: Israel's New Palestinian Land-grab Law and Why It Matters

Israel's parliament voted on a bill that expropriates private Palestinian land in the West Bank. What does the new law change, who is affected and why is it such a big deal?

A picture taken from Hebron shows a Palestinian boy riding a horse, with the Israeli settlement of Givat Harsina appearing in the background, West Bank, February 5, 2017.
HAZEM BADER/AFP

What exactly does the new law change?

The law allows Israel to expropriate private Palestinian land in the West Bank where Israeli settlements or outposts have been built. It allows Jewish settlers to remain in their homes, even though it does not grant them ownership of the land they live on. It denies the Palestinian owners the right to claim the land or take possession of it until there is a diplomatic resolution of the status of the territories.

Wait – back up – what is the name of the law? 

Good question. Part of the confusion surrounding the bill is its name. In Hebrew, it has been given a misleading moniker with confusing translation options – most commonly, it is translated as the Regularization Law.

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Technically, it is meant to regulate settlement in Judea and Samaria and allow its continued establishment and development. A more straightforward name would, in fact, be Expropriation Bill, since it legalizes government expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land retroactively. The laws opponents would probably prefer to put things even more bluntly and call it the Theft Law – a law that legalizes settlers living on land that doesnt belong to them. 

Why is it such a big deal? Isnt the West Bank occupied anyway?

The law crosses a line Israel has never violated before, even according to right-wingers like former Likud minister Dan Meridor, who called the law evil and dangerous. He points out that Israel's Parliament never regulated Palestinian property ownership in the West Bank because the Arabs of Judea and Samaria did not vote for the Knesset, and it has no authority to legislate for them. These are basic principles of democracy and Israeli law.

If Israel is to be fully sovereign in the West Bank, he contends, it would have to allow the Palestinians there citizenship and grant the right to vote. Until then, he says, Israels authority to regulate land in the West Bank is limited only to doing so for security purposes – under both Israeli and international law. 

Does Israels attorney general agree? 

Yes. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has declared that if the law is challenged in court, he wont defend it against arguments that it violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.

This hasnt deterred Israels far-right Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a senior member of the party Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), the driving force behind the law. She says that if it becomes necessary, a private attorney will represent the government in a court battle that most legal experts expect to end in an invalidation of the law. 

How many settlements will the law affect?

According to Peace Now, the law will allow for the retroactive legalization of land in more than 50 outposts and settlements so far.

In 16 of them, demolition orders have already issued against homes built on land claimed by Palestinian owners. Under the new law, any action to implement these orders will be frozen for a year pending proceedings to determine whether the state may seize the land. 

This includes properties in the settlements of Ofra, Eli, Netiv Haavot, Kokhav Hashahar, Mitzpe Kramim, Alon Moreh, Maaleh Mikhmash, Shavei Shomron, Kedumim, Psagot, Beit El, Yitzhar, Har Bracha, Modiin Illit, Nokdim and Kokhav Yaakov.

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The law came too late to save the illegal outpost of Amona, which was evacuated last week.

What do you mean by so far? Would the law, if passed and upheld, allow settlement on private Palestinian land in the future?

Potentially, yes. The measure would empower the justice minister to add more settlements and outposts to the list of areas where property may be seized from Palestinians, with the approval of the Knessets Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Are the Palestinian landowners who have settlers living on their land compensated? And if so, how? 

Under the new law, Palestinian landowners get a choice: if possible, they are given an alternate plot of land. If not, they will be paid an annual usage payment of 125 percent of the lands value as determined by an assessment committee for renewable periods of 20 years. Unless, in an optimistic scenario, a peace deal happens that involves removing Israeli settlements from their land. 

Why does all of this sound really familiar? Hasnt the government been fighting over this for a long time? 

The bill passed its initial legislative hurdles in November and December, but was subsequently deferred and postponed for various reasons. The primary reason has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus concerns over the late-term moves of the Obama administration (and indeed, Obama aides have held the law at least partially responsible for its UN Security Council abstention) and its fear of getting off on the wrong foot with the Trump administration.

The law has been pushed hard by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. When Bennett first introduced it, Netanyahu called his haste "childish and irresponsible" and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Bennett that he was "endangering the future of the settlement enterprise on an electoral whim."

So why was it revived and why the last-minute late-night vote on Monday?

Netanyahu was told by the Trump administration not to take any significant moves before his scheduled meeting with the president on February 15. Hed used this to make the case for delaying the Monday vote at a meeting with coalition party leaders a day earlier. But Bennett and Shaked, under tremendous pressure from their base to forge ahead with it after Amona was dismantled, refused any more delays.

Unable to stop the law any longer, all Netanyahu could do was brief Trump – let him know it was coming, on the same day he had to hear from British Prime Minister Theresa May that the law would be unhelpful and would make things more difficult for Israel's friends. And – presumably to save face with his right-wing supporters whom Bennett clearly hopes to woo away from him – Netanyahu backtracked, denying he had tried to delay the vote.