The Knesset plenum on Monday approved a new draft of a bill to recognize West Bank settlement outposts, a controversial measure castigated by its opponents as an illegal land grab that paves the way for Israel to recognize some 4,000 settler homes built on private Palestinian land.
After a raucous plenary session that saw opposition lawmakers screaming and ripping up copies of the proposed legislation, the revised so-called Regulation Bill — which received ministerial approval just hours before — sailed through Israel’s parliament, clearing its first legislative hurdle by a count of 60 MKs for and 49 against.
The Knesset discussion on the bill began stormily with a speech by Jewish Home MK Betzalel Smotrich that descended into chaos, as opposition lawmakers attempted to shout him down and drown him out by banging on tables.
Following the vote, the legislation was sent to committee and could be brought to a first reading in the plenum as soon as Tuesday.
Barring intervention from government leaders, the bill is expected to speed through the Knesset after gaining coalition support in an emergency meeting of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation Monday night. If passed, it would then inevitably be challenged before the Israeli High Court.
In presenting the bill, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked thanked left-wing NGO Peace Now. Without Peace Now’s efforts to demolish illegal structures and reclaim Palestinian land, the coalition never would have acted, she said.
“Without intending to, Peace Now and other left-wing organizations are aiding the settlement movement in Judea and Samaria,” she said, using the biblical name for the West Bank.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog accused the government of committing “national suicide,” calling it a “dark day for the Knesset” with the passage of the bill in its initial stages.
An earlier version of the bill, which left open the possibility of a clause overriding the court-ordered demolition of the Amona outpost, passed a preliminary vote last month.
However, the revamping of the legislation prompted right-wing lawmakers to lodge the bill anew on Monday, bringing it, once again, to a preliminary vote.
Originally designed to avert the court-ordered demolition of the Amona outpost by December 25, the amended legislation will not be applied retroactively to the nearly 20-year-old hilltop community of 40 Israeli families outside the settlement of Ofra, who are set to be relocated to a nearby plot of land.
It will, however, recognize other settlement construction that was built on private Palestinian land.
Despite the revisions to the bill, namely the removal of the retroactive measure protecting Amona, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Monday the bill is still indefensible in court, repeating his earlier opposition to the measure.
Mandelblit said the amended bill bypassed standard land regulation procedures in the West Bank and still legalized Israeli settlements built on private Palestinian land, breaking local and international law.
Settlement watchdog Peace Now says the Regulation Bill will legalize 55 outposts and 4,000 housing units in existing Jewish outposts and settlements in the West Bank, cast over some 8,000 dunams (3 square miles) of privately-owned Palestinian plots.
The legislation stipulates that settlement construction in the West Bank that was carried out in good faith, namely without the knowledge that the land was privately-owned, and if the settlers had some component of state assistance — which in some cases could be as simple as having existing infrastructure, since most infrastructural services fall under the purview of state ministries — would be recognized by the government.
The proposed legislation notes that the government support may be explicit or implicit, from the start or post-facto, and the backing of local municipalities is considered state support.
Under the law, the government will be able to appropriate land for its own use if the owners are not known. 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.
The legislation explicitly refers to structures in three settlements that have been subject to legal efforts to demolish buildings constructed on private land — Eli, Netiv HaAvot, and Ofra. It says that all administrative proceedings in these three settlements will be frozen with the enactment of the law, and within the first 12 months, the government must determine whether these structures were built in good faith and with government assistance. If they are — the Regulation Bill will apply to these areas, it stipulates.
“In many cases, settlements were built in agreed-upon areas, and were even encouraged or built in coordination with the state, or were built in good faith by the Israeli residents, who were unaware that this was privately-owned land,” the proposal says. “Leaving the situation as is in these settlements or their destruction is liable to seriously, unjustifiably harm those who have lived there for many years. Therefore, the regulation of these settlements is necessary.”
Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett on Monday praised the measure as the first step toward annexing West Bank land for Israel. “Today, the Israeli Knesset shifted from a path to establish a Palestinian state, to a path of extending sovereignty to Judea and Samaria. Let there be no doubt, the regulation bill is what will spearhead the extension of [Israeli] sovereignty,” a smiling Bennett said.
At the same time opposition lawmakers warned it was an illegal land grab that will push a two-state solution even further away.
Some officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have warned in the past that the law could see Israeli officials prosecuted in the International Criminal Court in The Hague.