Facing backlash over Amona, Jewish Home leaders vow to pass legalization bill
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'We elected you in order to fight, not to surrender'

Facing backlash over Amona, Jewish Home leaders vow to pass legalization bill

‘The government did everything it could’ to aid evacuees, insists pro-settlement justice minister; amid fierce opposition, Regulation Bill set for final vote this week

Education Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset plenum, January 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Knesset plenum, January 25, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two top ministers from the Jewish Home Party vowed on Saturday night to ensure that a controversial settlement legalization bill passes into law this week.

On a visit to the Ofra settlement in the northern West Bank, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked faced criticism and shouts of “shame” from locals who blamed them for failing to prevent the forced evacuation last week of the illegal Amona outpost.

“We elected you in order to fight, not to surrender to [Prime Minister] Bibi [Netanyahu],” residents shouted at the ministers, who were in Ofra to discuss the so-called Regulation Bill with the town’s leaders.

“You should be ashamed,” some shouted as Bennett and Shaked left the meeting.

Built without state authorization on land privately owned by Palestinians from a nearby village, Amona has faced a series of demolition orders and court proceedings since the mid-1990s. The High Court of Justice gave its final demolition order in December 2014, along with a two-year delay to allow residents and the government to find alternate accommodations. The settlers were finally removed by police last week in an operation that turned violent toward the end, as bands of activists holed up in the community’s synagogue attacked police and defaced the building.

“They see us as the people closest to them,” Shaked told Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” on Saturday night, attempting to explain why residents were directing their wrath at her and Bennett rather than at the High Court of Justice that ordered the demolition, or at other coalition parties that prevented Amona’s inclusion in a plan to legalize illegally built homes in the West Bank.

Jewish Home leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett, center, with fellow Jewish Home lawmaker Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, right, and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during a plenum vote on the Regulation Bill on November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home leader Education Minister Naftali Bennett, center, with fellow Jewish Home lawmaker Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, right, and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during a plenum vote on the Regulation Bill on November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We made every effort to pass the framework” offering Amona residents an alternate site to reestablish their community near the current location.

That framework was ruled illegal by the High Court of Justice last week after Israeli NGO Yesh Din appealed to the court with evidence that the new area was also privately owned by Palestinians.

In the end, the justice minister said, “you have to carry out a conclusive court ruling. The government did everything it could to offer Amona’s residents an alternative.”

Another court order to demolish nine homes in Ofra itself is slated to be carried out by Wednesday this week.

According to Channel 10, Bennett and Shaked told Ofra’s leaders they would work with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to seek legal ways to delay or cancel the demolition orders.

Shaked and Bennett’s promise to work to pass the Regulation Bill may make for one of the most contentious parliamentary periods in recent years.

The Regulation Bill has been pushed by right-wing lawmakers in recent months in part to off-set the political fallout from the Amona evacuation. If it passes its second and third readings scheduled for Monday this week, it would legalize several thousand settlement homes that were unknowingly built on privately-owned Palestinian land.

The bill would freeze demolition proceedings against the homes. For any homes found to have been built in good faith – that is, owners did not know the house was built on privately owned land before building there – the state would be required to seize the property from its Palestinian owners in exchange for compensation valued at slightly more than the land’s market value, as determined by an Israeli government committee established for that purpose.

The left-wing NGO Peace Now has estimated some 4,000 homes would be affected by the bill, while right-wing counterpart Regavim has put the number at about half that figure.

Netanyahu has expressed support for the bill, saying it would protect the settlement movement from “harassment” by legalizing the most common reason that lawsuits are brought against settlements.

The bill has faced strident opposition, including from Attorney General Mandelblit himself, who has warned that it marks the first time Israeli legislation explicitly affirms government support for settlements, and would openly curtail property rights of Palestinians in the West Bank in a way that contravenes the protections granted to occupied populations under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

While Israel has always disputed the contention of nearly the entire international community that the territory of the West Bank is under occupation, it has agreed to apply to Palestinians living there the protections given to occupied people in the Convention. To weaken those protections, Mandelblit has warned, could expose Israeli officials to international sanction at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni at a faction meeting in the Knesset on January 16, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni at a faction meeting in the Knesset on January 16, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

This warning has raised concerns across the political spectrum.

Zionist Union lawmaker Tzipi Livni, a former Likud justice minister whose Hatnua party is now allied with the center-left Labor party, warned Saturday that the Regulation Bill “will bring IDF soldiers” before the ICC.

Speaking at a cultural event in Ness Ziona, Livni said the bill was more harmful to the country than any of the Israeli rights groups often demonized by the right.

“The Regulation Bill is causing us more damage than any Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem or other organizations,” she said.

As Netanyahu heads to Washington to meet with US President Donald Trump on February 15, Livni said, “he must decide whether he’s going as [head of the pro-settler Jewish Home party Naftali] Bennett or as someone who is maintaining Israel’s interests.

“Netanyahu already said the bill will lead [Israel] to the UN Security Council and The Hague,” she said. “Passing the bill will lead IDF soldiers to The Hague.”

Referencing Trump’s portrayal of himself as an ultimate deal-maker, Livni expressed her belief that, “Only one deal will keep Israel Jewish and democratic — a separation from the Palestinians.”

A settler's house in the outpost of Esh Kodesh in the West Bank, on July 20, 2015. (Photo by Garrett Mills/Flash 90)
A settler’s house in the outpost of Esh Kodesh in the West Bank, on July 20, 2015. (Garrett Mills/Flash 90)

Criticism came from the right as well. Likud’s Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant and ally of Netanyahu, also expressed his opposition to the legislation, and said he did not believe it would pass the upcoming Knesset votes.

“People on the right did not have the courage to tell the settlers the truth,” Hanegbi said about the bill’s chances of being enacted, the Israel Hayom daily reported. “It is fair to assume that it will not pass.”

Livni’s fellow Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli branded the bill “a legal, moral and democratic terror attack.”

“We will do everything to stop it,” he said, according to Israel Hayom. “This is another dangerous step on the way to an attempted annexation of the Palestinian territories and a loss of the nation’s Jewish majority thanks to messianic delusions.”

Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli seen at the Labor Party conference in Tel Aviv on December 14, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Itzik Shmuli seen at the Labor Party conference in Tel Aviv on December 14, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Regulation Bill passed its final committee vote on Tuesday, putting the controversial legislation just one step away from becoming law.

The bill was narrowly approved by a vote of seven to six in a joint meeting of the Knesset’s Law Committee and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

The bill is scheduled to face its second and third readings — the two final votes required to become law — on Monday.

The bill was put on ice late last year as Netanyahu reportedly sought to avoid any additional fights with the Obama administration before its end on January 20. Netanyahu announced the bill’s return last Sunday.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice, Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 18, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a Constitution, Law, and Justice, Committee meeting in the Knesset, July 18, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The final draft of the bill outlines the procedures for legalizing unauthorized construction on private Palestinian land and compensating the landowners. It also immediately freezes administrative proceedings in 16 West Bank settlements for a period of 12 months.

The bill stipulates that settlement construction in the West Bank that was carried out in good faith, without knowledge that the land was privately owned, would be recognized by the government, provided the settlers show some kind of state support in establishing themselves at the site. This support could in some cases be as minimal as having access to public infrastructure.

Under the terms of the bill, the government will be able to appropriate land for its own use if the owners are unknown. 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.

Marissa Newman and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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