Knesset okays repeal of Disengagement Law for northern West Bank in 31-18 final vote

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, who sponsored the bill, hails ‘significant step’ toward reestablishing Israeli presence in ‘homeland’ areas; opposition MK labels law ‘anti-Zionist’

The Palestinian village of Burqa is seen as an Israeli flag is placed in the Jewish West Bank outpost of Homesh, January 17, 2022. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
The Palestinian village of Burqa is seen as an Israeli flag is placed in the Jewish West Bank outpost of Homesh, January 17, 2022. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The Knesset voted in the early hours of Tuesday morning to roll back legislation that ordered the evacuation of four northern West Bank settlements concurrent with Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005, passing the repeal in second and third (final) Knesset readings 31-18.

The law, which won some support from opposition members including National Unity’s Gideon Sa’ar and Ze’ev Elkin, repeals the clauses of the Disengagement Law that banned Israelis from the area where the settlements of Homesh, Ganim, Kadim and Sa-Nur once stood, paving the way for settlers to return.

The four communities were the only West Bank settlements to be cleared during what is termed the Disengagement from Gaza close to 18 years ago. The new law applies to those areas only.

The head of the IDF Central Command will still need to sign a military order allowing Israelis to return to those areas.

The destroyed towns have been a symbol to settlement supporters of an injustice they have sought to undo, while to Palestinians the areas are another section of West Bank territory stripped from them.

The repeal, approved in a first Knesset reading less than a week ago, will bolster the coalition’s efforts to legalize a wildcat outpost currently occupying the site of Homesh and a yeshiva that has been built there, which activists have tried repeatedly to reestablish since 2005.

Repealing restrictions on Jewish entry was a required step toward legalizing the outpost. Homesh is built on private Palestinian land, according to a High Court ruling.

Settlers at the Homesh Yeshiva gather in a tent at the former settlement of Homesh, west of the West Bank city of Nablus, on December 30, 2021 (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Watchdogs and opponents of the bill have warned that the law could be used to further expand settlement activity in the region in general, and could lead to de facto annexation of large parts of the West Bank, undermining Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state.

The bill has been contentious internationally and violates a major Israeli commitment to the administration of former president George W. Bush to ensure enough Palestinian contiguity for a viable future state, as the US under Bush agreed for the first time to recognize the need for land swaps in any potential peace deal and take into account Israeli settlement blocs.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein, who sponsored the bill, celebrated its passage in the final votes early Tuesday. “Seventeen years of attempts, an uncompromising struggle, and a strong belief in the righteousness of this path converged into one moment when the Knesset plenum voted in favor of canceling the Disengagement Law,” Edelstein wrote on Twitter.

“The State of Israel tonight began its recovery process from the deportation disaster,” said Edelstein, referring to the thousands of Israelis forced out of their homes in settlements across Gaza and the northern West Bank. “This is the first and significant step towards real healing and settlement in Israel’s homeland territories, which belong to it.”

The bill was also backed by several other Likud MKs, ultra-Orthodox Shas lawmakers and members of the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties. Among them is freshman Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech, a former resident of Homesh whose first husband was killed in a terror attack while living there.

Religious Zionism MK Orit Strock, the minister of national missions including settlements, posted a video of Knesset members and others celebrating and dancing after the final votes.

Elkin said the passage of the bill brought closure and was an “important law that corrects the very great injustice of the Disengagement plan.”

National Unity leader Benny Gantz, the former defense minister and a key member of the opposition, addressed Har-Melech in his speech on the Knesset podium before the vote, telling her: “I know that today’s vote on this law comes from an authentic, painful, and believing place,” but, he said, it is “wrong to return to northern Samaria,” using a biblical term for the northern West Bank.

“We cannot ignore our need to find a way to live alongside Palestinians who are in the area. I think we have no choice. Even though we don’t agree, we have to know how to live with each other,” he said.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv, also in the opposition, criticized the passage of the law as well and said it moved Israel “closer to a binational reality.”

Calling it a “pre-annexation bill” and an “anti-Zionist law,” Kariv said the repeal would “lead to the establishment of additional illegal outposts,” result in an uptick in violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and “stretch the capabilities” of the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers block the entrance to the illegal Homesh outpost, in the northern West Bank, May 28, 2022.(Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The final Knesset readings on the bill came at a tricky time. Earlier this week, Israel — in the presence of US, Egyptian, and Jordanian officials — reaffirmed its pledge to the Palestinian Authority to refrain from advancing settlement plans for four months and from advancing the legalization of West Bank outposts for six months.

This promise, and an accompanying Palestinian promise to freeze unilateral actions that are opposed by Israel, are aimed at lowering Israel-Palestinian tensions that frequently simmer around Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, expected to begin on Thursday.

But reclaiming Homesh has become an important cause for backers of settlements, who have engaged in a years-long cat-and-mouse game with the IDF of destroying and rebuilding an illegal yeshiva and some living quarters on the hilltop.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has pledged to preserve the yeshiva, despite court orders to demolish it.

In January, the High Court of Justice ordered the government to explain why the illegal settlement should not be evacuated. The government told the High Court of Justice that it had reversed the previous government’s commitment to evacuate Homesh and instead would seek to legalize the outpost by repealing the relevant clause of the Disengagement Law.

The state was responding to a petition by the anti-settlement Yesh Din organization, which demanded the outpost be removed and the Palestinian residents of the nearby village of Burqa be given access to their private land, on which the outpost sits.

Although the government hopes the repeal of the Disengagement Law will facilitate the legalization of Homesh, High Court justices expressed doubt that the settlement could be legalized given that it is built largely on private Palestinian land.

Jeremy Sharon and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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