On Monday afternoon, hours after Prime Minister Netanyahu sipped tea with Theresa May at 10 Downing Street, the Israeli Knesset passed a bill to make settlements built on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank legal under Israeli law.
The so called ‘regularisation bill’ will retroactively legalise the building of 4000 settlement homes built on land owned privately by Palestinians - handing that land over for exclusive use of Israeli Jewish settlers.
All settlement building in the occupied territories is regarded as illegal under international law. Successive Israeli governments have ignored UN resolutions by declaring the territories disputed. However, the Israeli courts have previously drawn a line at supporting the building of settlements on land privately owned by Palestinians. Settlements built on such land have been designated as ‘outposts’.
This bill effectively reverses that position, declares outposts as legal, and by doing so attempts to assert Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. These territories, along with the Gaza strip, are widely regarded in the international community as land reserved for the basis of a Palestinian state.
The significance of the passage of this law cannot be understated. The legislation marks the first time that the Israeli parliament has imposed Israeli law on Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied West Bank. The occupied West Bank is not sovereign territory of the Israeli state, although much of it is under Israeli military rule.
The increasingly brazen nature of Israel’s defiance of international law is leading to a growing chorus of international condemnation extending to those previously seen as staunch allies of the state, including Angela Merkel. Her foreign ministry stated, “Our trust in the Israeli government's commitment to the two-state solution has been fundamentally shaken.” Strong words indeed from a close ally. Nicky Mladenov, the UN’s coordinator for the Middle East peace process, described the bill as crossing “a thick red line” and stated that it “opens the floodgates to the potential annexation of the West bank”.
Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem has also condemned the bill, stating “the law passed by the Knesset proves yet again that Israel has no intention of ending its control over the Palestinians or its theft of their land. Lending a semblance of legality to this ongoing act of plunder is a disgrace for the state and its legislature. Passing the bill mere weeks after UN Security Council Resolution 2334 is a slap in the face of the international community. “
The resistance was not confined to human rights NGOs, but also spread to Israeli politicians who historically had supported previous violations of international law. Former justice minister Dan Meridor condemned the bill as “evil and dangerous.” Even Israel's own attorney-general has said it is unconstitutional and that he will not defend it in the Supreme Court.
Palestinian officials have called for the international community to play its part and ‘act concretely’ to oppose this new law, describing it as legalised land theft.
Some tentative signs of active opposition to the bill have emerged. The EU and its member states have now postponed a summit with Israel scheduled for February 28, as several anonymous diplomats expressed concern that hosting the summit would be tantamount to rewarding Israel for the 6,000 new settlement units recently announced and the Knesset bill passed on Monday.
In the UK Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood joined the condemnation of the bill, describing it as “threatening the viability of the two-state solution" and as an act which “damages Israel's standing with its international partners.”
On Thursday 9 February the British parliament debated Israeli settlements, with overwhelming cross-party support for the UK's long-standing recognition that settlements are illegal and a barrier for peace. Many cross-party voices were raised in the debate, calling for the UK government to move from condemnation of settlements to meaningful action.
During the debate, Conservative MP Sir Desmond Swayne said, “Palestinians are excluded from the heart of their city [Hebron] and the environs of their homes. It has all the appearance of what we used to describe as ‘petty apartheid’.” Labour MP Richard Burden agreed, stating, “What is happening now already is a creeping culture of apartheid.”
If there were any lingering doubts about Israel’s intentions to continue to build settlements in defiance of international law, then the passing of the ‘regularisation’ bill surely removes them. Israel’s supporters have constantly maintained that Israel will respond to the diplomatic cajoling of friends - but this theory is increasingly riven with holes. If the UK is serious in its own stated commitments to upholding international law, supporting human rights and working towards peace, then action is required.
At a minimum it is time for Theresa May to announce a review of all of the UK’s financial relations with Israeli settlements and a ban on the import of all settlement goods. The time for fine words and diplomatic expressions of concern have long passed. It is time for concrete action.
Ben Jamal is the Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the largest UK civil society organisation dedicated to securing Palestinian human rights.
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