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Israeli lawmakers move to annex West Bank, one museum at a time

Israel's parliament appears likely to pass a law funding Israeli museums in the West Bank – the latest settler effort to promote a creeping annexation of the disputed territory.

By Ben LynfieldCorrespondent / December 16, 2011

Kedumim, West Bank

As Rachel Slonim shows a visitor around the modest, unheated archeological museum in this West Bank settlement, she becomes animated when she reaches a display case with artifacts from the biblical Israelite period.

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''The Israelite period was the most beautiful period in the history of Samaria,'' says Ms. Slonim, referring to the 600-year era that she says climaxed with the reign of King Omri, who built his capital near the area where she lives today. ''Settlement is very important in our eyes and the eyes of the Holy One Blessed Be He, who gave us this land.''

Slonim and her husband, Zvi, who helped found the Kedumim settlement more than three decades ago, are among more than 300,000 Israelis with homes outside the borders of Israel proper. Technically they live under military rule, established after Israel conquered the West Bank in the 1967 war.

But the trappings of civilian Israeli government and the implied annexation that comes with it have been accumulating in the area in recent years. Now a new bill in Israel's parliament would give unusually high-profile endorsement for the expansion of Israeli government in the disputed territory, which settlers see as the biblical cradle of Jewish civilization but Palestinians consider to be the heartland of their future state.

Legislator Uri Ariel of the far-right National Union party says the first step, outlined in this bill, would be securing government funding for museums in settlements, like the one in Kadumim. With backing from Israeli Culture Minister Limor Livnat, of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, the bill passed its first reading last week and looks likely to become law.

While the bill itself appears modest, critics say it amounts to declaring an annexation policy that boosts right-wing settlers and their supporters at the expense of Palestinians and Israelis who are uncomfortable with the notion that the West Bank – and its majority Palestinian population – will become part of Israel someday.

''The policy has been to continue Israeli rule and extend Israeli law in bits and pieces, gradually to Israelis living in the West Bank while keeping Palestinians living under military occupation or a mix of military occupation and Palestinian Authority autonomous rule,'' says Gershom Gorenberg, a prominent historian of the settler movement. He says what is new about Mr. Ariel's bill is that the annexing is being done brazenly.

''He is saying, I don't want to do it like thieves in the night, I want to do it publicly, I'm proud of this. Ariel wants public recognition of what he is doing," says Mr. Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel. "The goal is to take the long process of applying Knesset [parliamentary] legislation and military orders to settlers, which blurs Israel's borders and who lives in Israel and who doesn't, and make it a declared policy.''

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi termed the museum bill ''the death knell of any chances of peace.''

''It is ensuring that settlements remain part of Israel and it exposes a very dangerous policy,'' she added. ''Israel keeps talking about a two state solution, but in reality, it is working for a one state solution.''

Equality for settlers

Ariel says the bill is needed to ensure that the right to culture of settlers is equal to that of other Israelis, something he says has not been the case until now. ''First of all there will be equality,'' he says. ''They can get orderly budgets and it will definitely bring more visitors, more culture, more everything."


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