Knesset advances legislation to legalize, provide utilities to wildcat outposts

Bill would affect 65 currently illegal West Bank communities, but legislative effort running out of time with government expected to disolve, and will also face court challenge

Civil Administration officers prepare to demolish a home slated for demolition in the Kumi Ori outpost on April 22, 2020. (Courtesy)
Civil Administration officers prepare to demolish a home slated for demolition in the Kumi Ori outpost on April 22, 2020. (Courtesy)

The Knesset advanced a controversial bill on Wednesday which, if passed into law, would legalize dozens of West Bank settlements considered illegal under current Israeli law. 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. The bill is set to head to committee before returning to the full Knesset chamber for approval in second and third readings.

“This is not just civil rights, these are the basic human rights, what we call first-degree rights: electricity, water,” Smotrich said on Wednesday evening in a speech to the Knesset. “Close to 70 towns have been on the ground for at least 20 years.”

It is not clear how Smotrich’s new bill differs from the 2018 Regulation Law — which also sought to legalize these West Bank settlement outposts. The controversial law was overturned by the High Court of Justice earlier this summer when the top legal body ruled that it “violates the property rights and equality of Palestinians, and gives clear priority to the interests of Israeli settlers over Palestinian residents [of the West Bank].”

Even if the bill makes it through the Knesset before the government is expected to fall early next week, it will likely face similar legal challenges.

Ora Hodaya and Shahevet Goldstein work the land at the Maoz Esther outpost on July 12, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

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, often on private Palestinian land.

Some 120 outposts exist throughout the West Bank. Just about all 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.

“Government offices will see these neighborhoods and settlements which have yet to complete the legalization process as recognized for all intents and purposes, including for budgeting, infrastructural aid and the construction of necessary educational buildings and community structures,” the bill states.

Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a Knesset plenary session at the Knesset, on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

A previous bill along the same lines, also initiated by Smotrich, passed a preliminary reading in 2018 before dying in committee.  The hard-right MK is also the founder of the Regavim organization, which advocates cracking down on illegal Palestinian construction in the West Bank.

Smotrich has little time to pass the law, however, as the current government is likely to topple as soon as next week due to its failure to pass a budget. If the bill fails to make it through three rounds of voting in the Knesset, the so-called “young settlements” — as advocates for the illegal outposts prefer to call them —  will have to wait until the Knesset reconvenes after March elections.

“This is a preliminary victory for ‘young settlement.’ But this is merely the beginning of the path. We will need to pass this law in three readings and a government decision as soon as tomorrow. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, the ball’s in your court,” Smotrich said.

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)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Blue and White) rejected the plan when it was proposed in government deliberations earlier this week.  But three senior members of his Blue and White faction voted in favor of the bill on Wednesday evening — MKs Omer Yankelevitch, Pnina Tamano-Shata, and Hila Shai-Vazan.

Yankelevitch has gotten into hot water with her party recently when she came out enthusiastically in favor of legalizing the so-called “young settlements.”

“I arrived to support you and to stand with you in your justified struggle,” Yankelevitch told a protest camp of outpost residents outside the Knesset in late November. The Blue and White MK told the demonstrators that Gantz felt the same way — which Defense Minister Gantz later reportedly denied.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, a member of Blue and White, told the Knesset during the vote that his party did not oppose legalizing some West Bank outposts but that the law needed to be more selective.

“The Defense Ministry is working on legalization right now. It is possible to legalize many towns and homes, but not all of them,” Nissenkorn said.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn speaks in the Knesset plenary before a vote to form four committees including the Coronavirus Committee, March 24, 2020. (Adina Veldman/Knesset)

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.

Joint List MK Ayman Odeh, who voted against the law, called it “another sign that attempts to annex the West Bank and dispossess the Palestinians of their land have never ceased.”

“The law strengthens the one-state vision — with two different legal systems, one for Jews, and for Arabs,” Odeh, who chairs the mostly-Arab Joint List bloc, wrote in a tweet.

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