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Israel retroactively legalizes West Bank settlements. Can they do that?

Israel's prime minister is moving ahead with a controversial law that would legalize dozens of West Bank settlements, despite warnings that the bill itself is illegal.

A Palestinian laborer works at a construction site in a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, on Tuesday.
Oded Balilty/AP
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Israel's ruling coalition, under pressure from its pro-settler wing after the court-ordered eviction of 40 families in the West Bank last week, may have found an end-run around the liberal courts.

On Monday, Israel’s 120-member Knesset voted 60 to 52 in favor of retroactively legalizing thousands of homes built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank, "if the construction was carried in good faith." The Palestinians who own the land will be compensated either with money or alternative land, the bill states.

The bill was seen by supporters as a way to protect the 600,000 or so Israeli living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas conquered in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war but not internally recognized as sovereign Israeli territory. In the West Bank, the bill effectively means taking territory away from Palestinians who do not have the right to vote, raising legal challenges. The international community has widely opposed the law over concerns about violating international law and jeopardizing the two-state solution.

"It will have far-reaching legal consequences for Israel and greatly diminish the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace," UN Mideast envoy Nickolay Mladenov said before the vote, urging lawmakers to vote against the bill, the Associated Press reported.

Palestinians see the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, as part of their future state. Israel, meanwhile, has tacitly supported the establishment of Israeli settlements on this land, with a view to cementing "our right over our fatherland," as Israeli Cabinet minister Yariv Levin described it, according to the Associated Press.

Unlike his predecessor, President Trump has lavished praise on Israel, criticizing a UN Security Council resolution in December, which former President Obama allowed to pass, that declared settlements illegal. With that in mind, Israel has been stepping up the construction of these settlement homes, approving more than 6,000 houses on occupied territory. And following last week's court-ordered demolition of the settlements in Amona, parts of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, specifically the Jewish Home party, have renewed their efforts to expand support for settlement, possibly with a view to annexing parts of the West Bank.

"What has been established cannot be destroyed," Jewish Home lawmaker Shuli Moalem-Refaeli, one of the bill's sponsors, told Israel Radio.

Mr. Netanyahu, though publicly supportive of the bill, has privately expressed misgivings: With an International Criminal Court investigation into existing settlements ongoing, the prime minister is concerned the bill could strengthen a future case against Israel. And his attorney general has said he would not defend the bill in the Supreme Court in the event of a likely challenge from an Arab-rights group, deeming the bill unconstitutional.

Those misgivings are shared by many in his party. As Dan Meridor, a former justice minister and member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, explained, the legality of the bill is questionable, because Palestinians cannot vote in Israel and so have no voice in the legislative process. 

"The idea is that we are taking land from someone, accidentally or not, and then are getting rid of him without him getting in a word, without him participating in the legislation," he said, according to the Associated Press. "This is something destructive that must be stopped."

The international community is also concerned about what the bill means for the future of peace in the region. Israeli settlement complicates a potential two-state solution by fragmenting the territory the Palestinians claim. 

"This spike in settlement activity undermines trust and makes a two-state solution – with an Israel that is safe from terrorism and a Palestinian state that is viable and sovereign – much harder to achieve," said Britain's minister for the Middle East, Tobias Ellwood, according to the Associated Press.

The White House has not yet commented on the bill. But in a recent statement, it said building new settlements or expanding existing ones past their current borders "may not be helpful" in achieving peace.

Netanyahu and President Trump are expected to discuss the settlements bill during Netanyahu’s visit to the White House on Feb. 15.

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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