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US ‘deeply concerned’ by Israeli advancement of outpost legalization bill

State Department official notes that wildcat communities have long been deemed illegal by Jerusalem, says Israel should avoid unilateral moves that ‘exacerbate tensions’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

View of the Israeli outpost of Mitzpe Dani, in the West Bank on January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
View of the Israeli outpost of Mitzpe Dani, in the West Bank on January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The US on Wednesday said it was “deeply concerned” by legislation to legalize 70 wildcat outposts in the West Bank that passed an initial stage in the Knesset a day earlier.

“We are deeply concerned about the potential ‘legalization’ of outposts that have long been deemed illegal under Israeli law,” a State Department spokesperson said in response to a query from The 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. However, outposts are often erected with the state’s tacit approval and successive government’s have sought to legalize at least some of the wildcat neighborhoods as a result.

On Wednesday, the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee voted in favor of fast-tracking several pieces of right-wing legislation, including the so-called outpost legalization law, which would formally allow 70 outposts beyond the Green Line to be connected to the state’s electricity and water supplies.

Likud MK Miki Zohar chairs a Knesset Arrangements Committee meeting on May 4, 2021. (Screen capture/Twitter)

The bills were introduced by the panel’s chairman Miki Zohar from the Likud party in what was widely seen as an attempt to split Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals as they seek to form an alternative coalition without him. The bloc is made up of parties across the political spectrum, including the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu, New Hope and Yamina parties which voted in favor of the outpost bill, giving it enough support to advance.

As a result, it is now able to skip the 45-day waiting period usually required between a bill’s submission and a plenary vote. However, the legislation along with the other bills advanced Wednesday are expected to stall. Hebrew media said Netanyahu’s rivals decided to allow lawmakers on the committee to vote their conscience in the initial Tuesday vote, while agreeing not to advance the legislation further as they work on forming a unity government that will focus exclusively on addressing the economic and health-related implications of the pandemic.

Commenting further on the advancement of the outpost bill, the State Department spokesperson stated, “As we have long said, it is critical that Israel refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions or take us further away from peace. This includes evictions, settlement activity and home demolitions, and certainly includes the legalization of Israeli outposts in the West Bank that have long been illegal even under Israeli law.”

The comments by the State Department official represented some of the more critical ones made by the Biden administration, which has regularly coupled its calls on Israel to avoid unilateral moves with similar warnings to the Palestinians.

In highlighting evictions, the US official appeared to be referencing looming efforts by ultranationalist Jewish groups to oust dozens of Palestinians from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

An Israeli police officer restrains a Palestinian during a protest on the eve of a court verdict that may forcibly evict Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on May 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

The Supreme Court is expected to rule as early as Thursday on an appeal by four of those Palestinian families — more than 70 people — against their eviction.

According to Ir Amim, a left-wing human rights group focusing on Jerusalem, around 200 families in East Jerusalem are under similar threat, with cases slowly moving through administrative bodies and Israeli courts. Around 70 of those families live in Sheikh Jarrah.

The evictions are based in part on a 1970 Israeli law that allows Jews to reclaim East Jerusalem land owned by Jews before 1948. No similar law exists for Palestinians who lost their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war and fled to what was then Jordanian-controlled territory.

In recent days, Palestinians have scuffled with police during protests against the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.

Late Wednesday, the Palestinian Red Crescent medical service said several people were injured in clashes in the neighborhood, including three people shot by rubber bullets. Israeli police reported five arrests, including a protester wearing a medic’s uniform who it said had thrown rocks at security forces.

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