The cabinet on Sunday voted unanimously to begin the process of legalizing the Havat Gilad outpost less than a month after the murder of resident Raziel Shevach.
The approved proposal declares the government’s intention to establish the hilltop community southeast of Nablus as a full-fledged settlement “on lands that are privately owned by Israelis or state lands.”
The proposal authorized Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to instruct relevant government bodies to examine the legal aspects of recognizing Havat Gilad as an official settlement. It also tasked the Finance Ministry with auditing the financial costs of establishing a new settlement.
On January 9, Shevach was gunned down by Palestinian terrorists while on his way home to the northern West Bank outpost. Even before the burial of the 35-year-old rabbi and father of six, settler leaders and right-wing lawmakers began to call for the outpost to be legalized in response to the attack.
Addressing the cabinet at the start of its weekly meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had just gotten off the phone with Shevach’s widow, Yael, whom he briefed on the government’s two-pronged response to her husband’s murder.
“First, exacting justice. Yesterday our forces were again in action in an effort to apprehend the last of the assassins and their accomplices in the murder of Rabbi Shevach. We will not rest until we bring them to justice. And we will bring them all to justice,” Netanyahu said.
Hours earlier, the IDF released a statement saying soldiers had apprehended an accomplice of Ahmad Nassar Jarrar, the Palestinian suspected of murdering Shevach. However, Jarrar himself appeared to have evaded capture, as he also managed to do in a similar raid in Jenin on January 18.
“Our second policy guideline is to strengthen settlement,” Netanyahu continued. “Whoever thinks that through the reprehensible murder of a resident of Havat Gilad, a father of six, he can break our spirit and weaken us is making a bitter mistake.”
In announcing the cabinet’s intention to legalize Havat Gilad, the prime minister addressed Shevach’s killers directly. “To those who sanctify death: We will sanctify life. This is the essence of the government’s policy,” he said.
“It’s a shame that we have arrived at this day, but if we have already arrived, I am happy that we are succeeding in getting the most comforting answer possible,” Yael Shevach said in a statement immediately following the cabinet approval.
However, the proposal’s language regarding the legal ownership of the land hinted at a significant hurdle that still remains ahead of the outpost’s legalization.
According to the IDF’s land registrar in the West Bank, most of the land on which the outpost was constructed is privately owned Palestinian property, the Haaretz daily reported earlier this month.
Furthermore, none of the buildings in the outpost, including those situated on Israeli-owned land, are legal, and all have outstanding demolition orders against them because they were built without a zoning or planning process and without the approval of local government bodies.
A law that passed in February 2016 allows the Israeli government to retroactively expropriate private Palestinian land where illegal outpost homes have been built, provided that the outposts were established “in good faith” or had government support and that the Palestinian owners receive financial compensation for the land.
None of those conditions are met in Havat Gilad’s case, according to sources cited in the Haaretz report.
However, the wording of Sunday’s proposal leave’s open the possibility that the location of the legalized settlement will be different from the outpost’s current spot. According to the motion, Liberman is now authorized to offer “the exact location for the establishment” of the settlement, though it is unclear whether the residents of Havat Gilad would be willing to move.
Israeli settlements are seen as illegal under international law and major obstacles to peace as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
Israel, however, differentiates between settlements it has approved and those it has not. Those without approval are referred to as outposts and are typically populated by hardline religious nationalists who see the entire West Bank as part of Israel.
Past attempts by Israeli authorities to dismantle Havat Gilad have led to clashes with settlers there.
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni was among the first opposition lawmakers to condemn the vote. The former justice minister called it a “surrender to a minority that is leading us to annexation, an Arab state and along the way a message that it pays to violate Israeli law,” in a Sunday tweet.
“When Lieberman talks about ‘legalizing’ Havat Gilad, he is actually saying that it is permissible to steal, as long as the victim is a Palestinian,” Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon tweeted.
The Peace Now settler watchdog blasted the proposal’s adoption as a “cynical exploitation of abominable murder.
“In legalizing Havat Gilad, an isolated outpost deep inside the West Bank, the government damages the prospects for two states and grants a prize to criminals who steal land,” the NGO said in a statement.
Government lawmakers, on the other hand, praised the cabinet’s decision. Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein called it “a victory over terror.”
“‘As they beat us, we will multiply and spread,’ he said in a statement, paraphrasing a passage from the book of Exodus.
״The government is fulfilling its obligation to legalize the community as we promised to the family of Rabbi Raziel after the attack,” deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely said in a tweet of her own.
“All those who employ abominable terror will understand today that these actions will only deepen our hold on the land of our country” she added.
AFP contributed to this report.