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Israel passes provocative law to retroactively legalize settlements

Prefabricated houses were removed from the closed Israeli settlement in Amona, in the occupied West Bank, on Monday.

Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Prefabricated houses were removed from the closed Israeli settlement in Amona, in the occupied West Bank, on Monday.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Parliament passed a provocative law late Monday that would retroactively legalize Jewish settlements on privately owned Palestinian land, pressing ahead with a right-wing policy despite the likelihood that the country’s high court will nullify the legislation.

It was a defining — opponents said frightening — moment in Israel’s ever-more-distant relations with Palestinians and amid fading hopes of ending decades of conflict with two states for two people.

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While polls consistently show that most Israelis still support two states, their leaders and the reality of what is happening on the ground are consistently heading in the opposite direction.

Fifty years after Israel defeated Jordan and captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem, many right-wing politicians say that now — with negotiations with the Palestinians frozen — is the moment Israel must decide what it wants and act decisively on it.

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The new law is “deteriorating Israel’s democracy, making stealing an official policy and bringing us one step closer to annexation” of more land Palestinians claim for a future state, said Anat Ben Nun, director of external relations for Peace Now, an antisettlement group.

Only a few months ago, the law was believed to have little chance of coming up for a vote. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was flying back from a meeting with Britain’s leaders as the law was being debated, seemed to oppose its passage for fear of further international censure.

The bill had been so contentious that the nation’s attorney general, who described it as unconstitutional and in contravention of international law, said he would not defend it in the high court.

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That is partly because the law applies to Palestinians and their property rights. Since Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are not Israeli citizens and cannot vote for candidates for Israel’s Parliament, or Knesset, critics of the legislation say it is inherently antidemocratic.

Under the law, Palestinian landowners will be offered compensation for the long-term use of their property but will not be able to reclaim it.

But the bill gained internal momentum through several forces: Netanyahu is determined to show his support to the powerful settler movement, under pressure from hard-liners on the right and from corruption investigations that even his supporters say appear serious.

That pressure intensified last week after Netanyahu’s government carried out a court order to evacuate about 40 settler families at the Amona outpost, declared illegal a decade ago.

“Today Israel decreed that developing settlement in Judea and Samaria is an Israeli interest,” said Bezalel Smotrich, a right-wing lawmaker, using the biblical names for the West Bank. “From here we move on to expanding Israeli sovereignty and continuing to build and develop settlements across the land.”

At the same time, Netanyahu and the right — some allies, some opponents — have taken into account that they have more leeway under President Trump than under President Barack Obama, who regularly condemned settlement building.

It is uncertain, however, just how firm the support from the new administration in Washington is: Last week, the White House issued a statement, amid announcements here about thousands of units of housing for settlers, saying that further expansion “may not be helpful” in achieving a deal with the Palestinians, which Trump has said he wants.

A clearer sense of how Trump differs from Obama and from nearly 50 years of US opposition to settlement building is expected to emerge from a meeting between Trump and Netanyahu on Feb. 15 in Washington.

The vote Monday, which passed 60 to 52, retroactively legalized several thousand housing units in 16 settlements on about 2,000 acres of Palestinian-owned land. The law provides for compensation to Palestinian landowners.

Opponents said the law would encourage more settlements on Palestinian land, with the expectation that they, too, would be legalized.

“Looting is illegal,” Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator, said after the vote. “The Israeli settlement enterprise negates peace and the possibility of the two-state solution.”

Yair Lapid, the opposition politician seeking to succeed Netanyahu, said before the vote: “It’s unjust, it’s not smart, and it’s a law which damages the state of Israel, the security of Israel, governance in Israel, and our ability to fight back against those who hate Israel.”

Israel’s settlement activity has come under intense international criticism. In December, the United Nations — with the tacit support of the outgoing Obama administration — condemned Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as an impediment to a two-state solution.

Settlers and right-wing Israelis say the West Bank and East Jerusalem, captured from Jordan in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, belong to the Jewish people.

The vote came on the same day as a rocket fired from Gaza landed near the Israeli city of Ashqelon. No one was hurt. The Israeli military responded with artillery fire and airstrikes in northern Gaza.

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