MKs push ahead with bill curbing High Court in West Bank land disputes

Justice Minister Shaked hails move as helping settlers, reducing load for top court, but opposition lawmaker slam it as part of ‘annexation bid’

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer (C) arrives at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem for a hearing about public transportation on Shabbat, on September 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer (C) arrives at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem for a hearing about public transportation on Shabbat, on September 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset on Monday advanced a bill that would strip the High Court of Justice of its jurisdiction in cases regarding West Bank land disputes, in an ongoing bid by conservative Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to restrict what she views as an overly activist bench.

The proposal, approved in February by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, passed in its first reading, 47 to 45. It would require Palestinians who claim ownership of land that has been built on by Israeli settlers to first petition the Jerusalem District Court, which already has the authority to discuss some administrative rulings.

Certain land ownership petitions would still be able to be heard by the High Court, but they would have to go through the district court first.

The legislation still has to pass two more readings in the Knesset plenum to enter the law book.

“Today the Knesset made a big step for normalizing life in Judea and Samaria,” Shaked said after the vote, referring to the West Bank by its biblical and historical name. “The rights of the residents of Judea and Samaria are just as important as those of other citizens.”

“The move will also lighten the heavy load the Supreme Court has to deal with,” she added.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (r) and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, on February 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

According to a statement from Shaked published in February, the legislation seeks to normalize the legal system in the West Bank, where the High Court rules on land disputes, entry permits, and Freedom of Information Law requests, as compared to Israelis living within the Green Line, who petition administrative courts on such matters.

It also aims to address what Shaked views as the discrimination that settlers face in the High Court. The justice minister argued that the burden of proof in High Court petitions is on the defendant rather than the plaintiff — a hierarchy that would be flipped in cases heard before a district court.

Shaked explained that the legislation’s third goal is to lighten the load of the High Court, which receives roughly 2,000 petitions a year, and “is forced to deny many off the bat.”

But a Justice Ministry official told The Times of Israel in February that the justice minister views the High Court as “overly concerned with international law and with protecting the rights of the ‘occupied’ population in Judea and Samaria.”

The Jerusalem District Court, however, is often more concerned with the testimonies of the specific case at hand, focusing less on broader geopolitical implications, the official explained.

A bulldozer demolishes a woodshop at the illegal Netiv Ha’avot outpost, November 29, 2017. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The Justice Ministry official added that the legislation comes against the backdrop of High Court decisions to demolish outposts such as Migron, Amona, and, most recently, Netiv Ha’avot, due to their construction on private Palestinian land.

“The expectation is that the District Court will be more flexible with such cases in the future,” he explained.

After the plenum vote, opposition lawmakers warned that the bill is part of a larger drive to annex and expropriate parts of the West Bank.

“This is a dangerous and problematic law, since is it an inseparable part of the annexation laws,” says MK Dov Henin of the mostly-Arab Joint List party.

“The authority shift is effectively an annexation act. It is contrary to the interests of both sides in reaching a peaceful and just solution which requires the end and eradication of the occupation,” Henin said.

“They are throwing dust in the public’s eyes,” charged MK Tzipi Livni of the left-wing Zionist Union party, referring to Shaked’s right-wing Jewish Home party.

“They say they want to lighten the load on the High Court,” she added. “All those fighting the court suddenly decide they want to help it. This is an attempt to create a situation where we think the annexation is a normal thing.”

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