Lawmakers took a further step Wednesday toward legalizing thousands of settler homes built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank, approving the first reading of the controversial Regulation Bill in a late night vote that followed a five-hour Knesset debate.
MKs voted by 58 to 51 in favor of the bill, which was both praised by supporters and castigated by opponents during the plenary session as the first step towards full Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.
Following a raucous preliminary vote on Monday that saw legislators screaming and ripping up copies of the proposed law, Wednesday’s debate was, for the most part, a comparatively subdued event.
The requisite shouting that faced Jewish Home MK Shuli Moalem-Refaeli as she presented the proposal quickly died down as over 50 opposition and a handful of coalition MKs took to the podium one-by-one to detail their delight over or concerns about the bill to a mainly empty plenum.
Moalem said that the law was an important step in taking control of parts of Israel that have been “lawless” for over 50 years. “The Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel. We returned after 2,000 years and established a state,” she said.
Hitting back at criticism that the move would break international law, Moalem said that a nation “can’t be an occupier in its own land,” and that Israel was free to make its own laws over the territory.
Originally designed to avert the court-ordered demolition of the illegal outpost of Amona, the Regulation Bill was initiated by lawmakers from the national-religious Jewish Home and the governing Likud parties.
On Monday, harried government efforts to reach a compromise saw a clause that would retroactively override a High Court ruling to raze Amona by December 25 dropped from the bill. The bill would, however, recognize other settlements built on private Palestinian land.
But Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has warned that the bill still breaches both local and international law, and indicated that the High Court is likely to strike it down. Some officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who voted for the bill along with all but one member of his coalition — have warned that the law could see Israeli officials prosecuted in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Last week coalition chairman David Bitan said the bill was expected to pass its final readings by December 14. Asked Wednesday by The Times of Israel if that still applied given that preventing the December 25 demolition of Amona is no longer part of the bill, a spokesman for Bitan said the coalition could not guarantee the original timetable.
Among the first to mount the podium was veteran Likud MK Benny Begin, who said he would again break ranks and vote against the first reading of the bill, as he did in the preliminary vote in a move that led to his suspension from a key Knesset panel.
Begin said that while he believes the Jewish people have a natural right to all of the Land of Israel, the bill would only damage the state and the settlement project.
“This bill is not smart, responsible or stable, and that is why the government is still looking for other options,” he said. ”I can therefore not support it and will vote against it.”
On Tuesday, Bitan suspended Begin from the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee a day after he twice voted against the preliminary version of the bill.
Speaking at Wednesday’s debate, Meretz MK Tamar Zandeberg said the bill constituted government theft of private property.
Settlement watchdog Peace Now says the Regulation Bill will legalize 55 outposts and 4,000 housing units in existing outposts and settlements in the West Bank, cast over some 8,000 dunams (3 square miles) of privately-owned Palestinian plots.
The legislation stipulates that settlement construction in the West Bank that was carried out in good faith, namely without the knowledge that the land was privately owned, would be recognized by the government provided the settlers had some kind of state assistance — which in some cases could be as simple as having existing infrastructure, since most infrastructural services fall under the purview of state ministries.
The proposed legislation notes that the government support may be explicit or implicit, from the start or post facto, and that the backing of local municipalities is considered state support.
Under the bill, the government will be able to appropriate land for its own use if the owners are not known. If the owners are known, they will be eligible for either yearly damages amounting to 125 percent of the value of leasing the land, a larger financial package valued at 20 years’ worth of leasing the plots, or alternate plots.
The legislation explicitly refers to structures in three settlements that have been subject to legal efforts to demolish buildings constructed on private land — Eli, Netiv HaAvot and Ofra. It says that all administrative proceedings in these three settlements will be frozen with the enactment of the law, and within the first 12 months, the government must determine whether these structures were built in good faith and with government assistance. If they are — the Regulation Bill will apply to these areas, it stipulates.
Unsurprisingly, the legislation has been slammed by the US, EU and UN as a breach of international law.
The US State Department on Tuesday called the legislation “profoundly damaging to the prospects for a two-state solution.”
“We’ve also been troubled by comments that we’ve heard by some political figures in Israel that this would be the first step in annexing parts of the West Bank,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We hope that it does not become law. We certainly hope that changes or modifications can be made to it.”
Marissa Newsman contributed to this report.