ONE OF several generous government gifts to appease the settler lobby following the evacuation of the Amona outpost, Israel’s new Regulation Bill, which has passed its first reading in the Knesset, is now ready to be put to the final vote whenever the coalition sees fit.The bill will retroactively transfer ownership of privately owned land that Israeli authorities took over from Palestinians for the purpose of settlement construction – either actively or through their tacit approval for the direct actions of settlers.If passed, this law will remove the final protection remaining, in principle, for Palestinian landowners in the West Bank: Israel’s High Court ruling of 1979 – one of the handful of times the court was prepared to intervene – which prohibits, as a rule, the establishment of settlements on privately owned and registered Palestinian land.
Since this court ruling, Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been built mostly on “state land,” i.e. government property, which has been allocated almost entirely to the settlement project.As outlandish as it is in its rhetoric, however, this law does not mark a departure from the actual reality on the ground. On the contrary, it continues the implementation of long-standing Israeli government policy.Privately owned Palestinian land has never ceased to be used for settlement construction and expansion – even after 1979 – albeit on a smaller scale. Additionally, the Israeli military regularly prevents the access of Palestinians to their recognized private land through a combination of military orders, physical obstacles, military and settler violence, as well as a set of bureaucratic tools. The establishment of any settlement, regardless of the status of the land it is built on or the planning and permit process it went through, violates international humanitarian law (IHL) and the human rights of Palestinians living in the West Bank.Over the years, Israeli governments have disregarded this prohibition and fabricated a sophisticated legal system designed to lend a guise of legality to its patently illegal enterprise. As part of this process, Israel has established some 237 settlements (official and unofficial) throughout the West Bank, including land annexed to Jerusalem. Almost 600,000 Israelis now live in these settlements.The distinction between privately owned Palestinian land and land classified by the Israeli authorities as “state land,” which has been allocated virtually in its entirety to settlement construction and expansion, is also largely artificial and has served to legitimize settling on any part of the West Bank not owned personally by Palestinian individuals.This is not only because settlements are illegal regardless of the type of land they are built on – “state land” i.e., government property, should not serve the government and civilians of Israel, the occupying power – but also because Israel has abused its power in order to reclassify 900,000 dunams (222,395 acres) of Palestinian land that were not previously registered as government property. It has done so through a manipulative and illegal interpretation of the laws governing it in the 1980s, thereby artificially increasing by 170 percent the amount of so-called state land in the West Bank prior to the Israeli occupation.The reality of state-sponsored land theft is not likely to change with or without this new bill. As long as the occupation and settlement enterprise continues, there is no prospect that the almost 4,000 homes already built on privately owned Palestinian land will ever be removed, or that the more than 8,000 dunams (1,977 acres) of private Palestinian land in established settlements, so-called outposts, and industrial areas, all according to official data analyzed by the Israeli NGO Peace Now, will be returned to their rightful owners.All this is not to say that the passing of the regulation bill is not a noteworthy landmark in the history of Israel’s half-century-long military occupation.The desire of Israel’s government to serve its settler constituency by approving a law opposed even by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, who has shown willingness to back virtually any government settlement plan, changes the rules of the game.Israeli strategy attached great importance to lending a veneer of legality to the settlement project. The government’s legal advisers and the High Court all participated in this charade. It is no wonder that a law that relieves Palestinians of their property in one fell swoop, and does so openly – unlike the previous practice of doing so bit by bit over time through legal manipulation – is to the chagrin of the so-called watchdogs. Our government clearly no longer seeks to take international law or the international community into account, not even superficially. This is particularly blatant so soon after UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which reiterated the international consensus that settlements violate international law.The illegal reality this bill will “legalize” has existed unhindered for years. Its true importance, therefore, is as further proof, if any is still needed, that Israel has no intention of ever ending its control over the Palestinians or to stop usurping their land. The only logical conclusion to be drawn is that now is the time for decisive international action to halt this systematic land theft by bringing an end to the occupation. Sarit Michaeli is B’Tselem’s international advocacy officer.