Ministers in Israel's hard-right government have voted unanimously for a bill that seeks to retroactively legitimise settlement outposts built illegally on Palestinian land in the West Bank. It then passed its first reading in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, by 58 votes to 50.
A 25 December deadline for the evacuation of the Amona settlement outpost, northeast of Ramallah, still stands, after courts rejected a government bid to delay it, but if the new bill becomes law, between 2,000 and 3,000 settler homes built illegally on private Palestinian land, including Amona, could be legitimised.
The bill, which requires three Knesset readings to become law, proposes to offer compensation to Palestinian landowners who can prove their ownership of land on which settlements were built. Mariam Hammad, a Palestinian from Silwad, near to Amona, said: “I don't want any money. I want the land I remember from when I was seven years old and would help my family harvest the potatoes and tomatoes we used to grow.”
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit made clear that the bill contradicts international law, and that he would be unable to defend it in the High Court of Justice.
The debate around the bill has accentuated some strategic differences of approach within Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition. Netanyahu himself, vociferously pro-settlement but perhaps fearful of further international isolation, sought to postpone both the Amona eviction and the vote on the legalisation bill. Education Minister Naftali Bennett has positioned himself as more explicitly pro-Amona, speaking directly to settler protesters, and arguing for an earlier vote on the bill as a potential way to stave off the evacuation of Amona.
Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, politically one of the most rabidly ethno-nationalist figures in the coalition but a key ally of the Prime Minister, have accused Bennett of reckless posturing. Netanyahu had previously said his government would “examine the possibility of evacuating [Amona] with responsibility”.
Lieberman has said that the government's main aim should be to ally itself closely to Donald Trump. Many Israeli chauvinists see Trump's election as a green light for an expanded settlement-building programme, which Barack Obama's administration opposed, albeit mealy-mouthedly. However, they are concerned not to be seen to be reckless, and are eager to work out an agreement with Trump. Lieberman said: “Anyone who fears for the future of the Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria [the Israeli nationalist right's term for the West Bank] understands that at this moment the most important thing is to coordinate positions with the new American administration. This is the first time there's a right-wing government in Israel, a Republican president and a Republican majority in the Senate and Congress, so facts on the ground must not be created and the incoming administration must not be embarrassed”. Lieberman has also opposed those who have urged physical resistance to the Amona evacuation.
The dispute in the coalition, then, is essentially over how quickly and aggressively to accelerate the colonial occupation of the Palestinian people. Although figures like Lieberman have flirted with genocidal discourse and come close to advocating ethnic cleansing, the pragmatic strategy of the Israeli nationalist right is not to exterminate the Palestinians, but to use settlement expansion as a means to establish a “Greater Israel” as a fixed reality, and snuff out any possibility of an independent Palestinian state. Those Palestinians who do not wish to be second-class citizens in a Greater Israel will need to be subjugated into acceptance.
Trump's election gives them a huge boost, although Lieberman and Netanyahu's caution shows that the Israeli government does not yet have a clear strategy for how to capitalise on that opportunity.
Meanwhile, the Israeli left and peace movement, embattled and marginalised by Netanyahu's increasingly authoritarian, Putin-esque regime, is attempting to resist the settler movement. Zehava Galon, chairperson of the soft-left party Meretz, said: “The government gave in to the extreme right, and is enacting a law bypassing the High Court that is meant to legitimize a theft that has already taken place, the robbery of land belonging to Palestinians. The formalization bill isn’t meant only to regulate Amona, if it passes – illegal construction of more houses built on private Palestinian land will be legitimized in the same way. The Israeli government's ministers don’t give a damn, not only for the High Court, but also for the prime minister, only to carry favor with a group of law-breaking settlers.”
Ayman Odeh, a Knesset member and leader of the left-wing party Hadash, said: “The government ripped off its mask and has begun the process of annexation of the West Bank, thereby sending a clear message to the world that it does not see the occupation as a temporary situation and is not looking towards a solution.”
Gush Shalom, the anti-occupation campaigning organisation, used its weekly full-page advert in Israeli liberal newspaper Ha'aretz to proclaim: “Not only Amona - All settlements are illegal. No “Legalization bill” could possibly whitewash them.”