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 , Correspondent

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.

''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.

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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."

If approved, the bill would make museums in the settlements eligible for the first time to apply for a share of the 40 million shekels ($10.5 million) in government funding currently allocated only to museums inside Israel proper.

Slonim, who works on a voluntary basis and is nearly an octogenarian, says the bill could enable the hiring of a salaried successor to her as guide and curator.

''I hope this law will help us to do things we could only dream about,'' including seminars on archeological preservation and the holding of temporary exhibits, she says.

The museum displays mostly objects garnered from excavations at Kedumim, located near the Palestinian city of Nablus, as well as some finds from elsewhere in the vicinity. There are also displays aimed at making the link to modern Israel, with one of them showing David Ben-Gurion's declaration of the state in 1948.

Poetry books of the late right-wing writer and politician Moshe Shamir – a founder of the Whole Land of Israel movement, which lobbied for settling the West Bank after its capture – are on sale and there is a display of posters, including one from before Israel's establishment, of a muscular man with a shovel. ''Help him build Palestine,'' it says in Hebrew.

What's different this time

But Ariel, and critics, say the law is not just about the museums, but rather about applying Knesset legislation to the settlers, despite their being beyond Israel's internationally recognized boundaries.

In a departure from past practice where the intent to apply Israeli law in the West Bank is buried in the text, if mentioned at all, Ariel says he has this time put it in the title of a bill. Indeed, the bill is called ''The Museums Proposed Law (Amendment-Application of the Law to Judea and Samaria).''

''There are other laws that apply in Judea and Samaria, but this one is outstanding in the sense that it is right there in the name. This is a bit of an innovation,'' Ariel says. He added that he intends to do the same thing in the future with further bills addressing realms where Israeli law is not being applied to settlers, but declined to specify those topics.

In his Knesset remarks, Ariel said the museum law ''constitutes the realization of the voters desire to strengthen settlement and Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria,'' using the biblical names for the West Bank.

Decades-old debate 

In a sense, the application of Knesset law to the settlers is almost as old as the occupation itself.

While in the immediate aftermath of Israel's stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, Theodor Meron, the legal counsel of the Israeli foreign ministry, advised the government that it was illegal to settle civilians in occupied territory, he was disregarded. (The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 bars an occupying power from transferring its citizens into the occupied territory.)

A month after the war ended, a military order was issued in July 1967 specifying that Israelis who committed offenses in the West Bank could be tried in Israel as if the offense was committed in Israel.

This order has been re-ratified by the Knesset at various intervals ever since, with riders tacked on, including that Israelis can register nonprofit organizations in settlements, that settlement residents would have the same tax obligations as other Israelis, and that Israel's National Health Insurance Law applies to Israeli residents of settlements.

In Kadumim, Slonim harkens back to King Omri, casting him as a hero for his settlement efforts even though scripture says he "was evil in the sight of the Lord and dealt wickedly above all that were before him."

"He was an idol worshiper, but he engaged in settling the land of Israel so his other sins are forgiven," she says.

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