Gantz blocks Netanyahu’s ‘irresponsible’ push to legalize West Bank outposts

PM reportedly tried to add recognition of 6 illegal settlements to cabinet’s agenda a day before Biden inauguration

The Avigayil outpost, southeast of Hebron in the West Bank, Febuary 21, 2010. (Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)
The Avigayil outpost, southeast of Hebron in the West Bank, Febuary 21, 2010. (Kobi Gideon / FLASH90)

After the government approved almost 800 new housing units in West Bank settlements this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday tried to also legalize six unrecognized outposts, but was thwarted by Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The proposal came a day before the inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden, potentially further complicating the start of Jerusalem’s relations with the new administration. The approval of the settler homes has received widespread international attention and been condemned by the Palestinians, the European Union and the UN, among others.

Tuesday’s cabinet meeting had been scheduled to only discuss the coronavirus crisis and the extension of a nationwide lockdown, but on Tuesday morning Netanyahu tried to put on the agenda a proposal that would include the recognition of the communities of Avigayil, Asael, Kedem Arava, Metzoke Deragot, Ovnat (currently considered a neighborhood of Mitzpeh Shalem) and Tel Tzion, which are deemed illegal under current Israeli law, according to ministers in Gantz’s Blue and White party.

Gantz swiftly moved to strike the item from the agenda, saying in a statement that “in the cabinet meeting, no diplomatically irresponsible proposal will be raised at such a sensitive time.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead a weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Last month, the Knesset advanced a controversial bill that, if passed into law, would legalize dozens of unrecognized outposts. It would also formally allow them to be connected to electricity and water supplies.

The so-called “Outposts Law,” initiated by hard-right Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich, passed 59-39 in its preliminary reading in the main chamber of the Knesset and was sent to a committee before its return to the plenum for approval in three more votes.

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, sometimes on private Palestinian land.

Some 120 outposts exist throughout the West Bank. Most of the small communities were established by national religious settlers intent on expanding Israeli presence in the West Bank while preventing the establishment of a future Palestinian state.

Smotrich’s bill dictates that 65 illegal communities will finish the legalization process over the next two years; if it becomes law, it would immediately formalize their connection to the water and electricity grids. Under Smotrich’s plan, some of the outposts would be identified as “neighborhoods” of existing settlements, while others would be registered as new ones.

Border Police descend on the Shevah Ha’aretz illegal outpost near Yitzhar to facilitate the demolition of a pair of structures there on October 24, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Gantz also rejected that plan when it was proposed in government deliberations before the vote. But three senior members of his Blue and White faction voted in favor of Smotrich’s bill — MKs Omer Yankelevitch, Pnina Tamano-Shata, and Hila Shai-Vazan.

The majority of settlements and outposts are located on land defined by the 1995 Oslo II Accord as Area C, meaning Israel is responsible for both civil and security issues in the zone. Area C constitutes around 60% of the West Bank.

Between 200,000-300,000 Palestinians are estimated to live in Area C, although a definitive census has not been conducted. While some Palestinian communities in Area C are recognized by the state, most are not, as the Israeli military government rarely approves plans for them or issues construction permits.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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