Groups petition High Court to strike down outpost law

Two NGOs representing 17 municipalities file papers seeking to overturn ‘dangerous’ new legislation legalizing West Bank; Court gives state one month to prepare defense

An aerial view of the illegal outpost of Maoz Esther in the West Bank. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
An aerial view of the illegal outpost of Maoz Esther in the West Bank. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Israeli and Palestinian human rights groups petitioned the High Court Wednesday, asking it to strike down a new law that retroactively legalizes several thousand West Bank settlement homes built on privately owned Palestinian land.

Arab rights group Adalah said that it and the East Jerusalem-based Legal Aid and Human Rights Center had filed the request on Wednesday afternoon on behalf of 17 Palestinian municipalities to overturn the “dangerous” law, which was approved by the Israeli parliament late on Monday.

“This sweeping and dangerous law permits the expropriation of vast tracts of private Palestinian land, giving absolute preference to the political interests of Israel,” said Suhad Bishara, an attorney for Adalah.

The court gave the state one month to present its defense of the law, Israel Radio reported.

The petitions against the law had been expected and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned before it was passed Monday that he would be unable to defend it in court, saying that it marks the first time Israeli legislation explicitly affirms government support for wildcat 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.

In all, the law would legalize some 3,900 homes — about 800 in unauthorized outposts and the remainder in recognized settlements.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said last week that “the chance of [the law] being rejected by the High Court is 100%.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also expressed misgivings about the bill, reportedly saying it could drag Israel into international legal prosecution, though in the end he agreed to support it.

Proponents claim the outposts covered by the law, some decades old and home to thousands of people, were built in “good faith” and quietly backed by several Israeli governments.

The law has been hailed by the settler movement as a turning point in the 50-year settlement project. Now, supporters say, the evacuation of Jewish settlements, such as the one carried out against the illegal Amona outpost last week, is a thing of the past.

For any structures found to have been built in good faith — that is, if the homeowners did not know the house was being built on privately owned land or the government backed them — the state would 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 United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League strongly criticized the legislation on Tuesday, although the new administration of US President Donald Trump remained silent. The previous Obama administration had opposed the legislation.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December stating that settlements have “no legal validity” and demanding that Israel stop building in the West Bank, including annexed East Jerusalem.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/POOL)

Bishara, of the aid group Adalah, said the new law flouted that resolution. “The transfer of the occupying power’s civilian population into occupied territory is a war crime,” she said.

Attorney-General Mandelblit is reportedly considering the unprecedented move of testifying against the Knesset in the High Court of Justice over the legislation.

On Tuesday, the Israeli legal rights group Yesh Din and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) called on authorities to ignore the legislation, calling it illegal.

A view of the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem (Flash90)
A view of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem (Flash90)

In a letter sent to Mandelblit and IDF Chief Military Advocate General Sharon Afek, the groups ask them to “instruct the authorities in the West Bank not to carry out the law.”

According to Yesh Din and ACRI, the law contradicts the “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” as well as international law, and “could implicate citizens and officers in war crimes at the International Criminal Court.”

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