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Knesset rejects 'land grab' bill; settlements expand anyway

Updated: The Knesset on Wednesday voted down a bill called the “Settlement Arrangement Law,” a motion tailored to legalize settlement areas and outposts in the West Bank facing legal challenges from Palestinians who claim to own the land privately. The vote failed (69 against, 22 in favor) despite severe pressure from the right this week, and following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threat to fire any government minister who supports the bill. On Tuesday the Attorney General approved a compromise plan offered by Netanyahu, which ensures the future of settlement expansion in the West Bank.

In a fierce legislative battle to win state approval for settlement expansion, lawmakers of the far-right were campaigning hard for the “Settlement Arrangement Law.” The law would retroactively legalize five buildings and their 30 apartment units in a neighborhood of the West Bank settlement of Beit El called Givat Ha’ulpana (or Ulpana), which the Supreme Court has  ordered demolished because they are built on private Palestinian land.

The prime minister opposed the bill, warning that it could harm Israel’s image abroad and paying a sort of grudging respect to the Supreme Court decision. He proposed instead an 11th hour compromise by which the houses would be physically relocated to a nearby part of Beit El. In other words, his compromise plan to relocate one tiny strip within the settlement would set a precedent for preserving and strengthening West Bank settlements in the long run.

The Attorney General approved Netanyahu’s plan, which not only involves the re-location of the buildings to a former military base at Beit El at cost of roughly NIS 14 million (approximately $3.8 million), but in addition the construction of 300 new housing units (reports late on Wednesday say that the prime minister is now offering 850 new units). More importantly, the plan involves advancing what is being called a “mechanism” for preventing similar legal claims against settlements in the future. Also on Wednesday, Netanyahu bowed to another demand of the right and formed a new committee to oversee settlement construction to diminish the authority of his defense minister, Ehud Barak. Netanyahu will head the committee himself.

Over the last few days, there have been vicious arguments within the right camp – with extremists like MK Yaakov Katz (Katzele) lashing out at democratically-inclined right-winger Benny Begin who dared to imagine complying with the court. The far-right parties have threatened legislative reprisals and supporters have launched a hunger strike.

Both the government and the Knesset have been actively seeking to preserve settlements and legalize such construction in Ulpana and other areas, through an aggressive legislative strategy designed to circumvent the Court’s decision. In late March, the far-right MKs (from Habayit Hayehudi and Likud) formulated the bill which was thought to have little chance of passing.   In a move the human rights organization Yesh Din called “unprecedented,” the state petitioned the Court in April to re-consider the case; the court rejected the petition. Also in April, the justice minister prepared a bill for a “Basic Law,” (Israel’s stand-in for a constitution) that would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings – thus threatening to tamper with the entire legal and political system, at least partly for this purpose.

The latter waned, but over the last week the Knesset has debated the “Settlement Arrangement” bill. The bill would legalize settlements on land where 20 or more families live, over which no one has claimed ownership in the courts in the four years since the establishment of the settlement (Hebrew version). A related bill basically says that if a settlement was established with any form of state assistance, it is to be considered state property; and if a person felt himself in good faith to be the owner when establishing the settlement – well, you guessed it – he is.

****** The spectacle has crossed a red line for me in terms of Israeli democracy.

Never have I witnessed such a legislative onslaught so finely tailored to negate the decision of the independent Supreme Court through laws meant to apply retroactively.

I have rarely heard such absurd statements made in the name of the Israeli public: settler representatives repeatedly invoke the mantra that the public cannot tolerate the evacuation of those 30 families. In fact, public support for dismantling settlements as part of an agreement has been climbing in recent years, and in 2010 reached nearly 60%. That assumes an agreement – but this is the same Israeli public that survived the 2005 unilateral dismantling of settlements in Gaza and the evacuation of Amona in 2006. So just what “public” are the settlers referring to?

Approximately 100 people demonstrated near the Knesset Monday night in support of the bill, according to radio reports, and a few hundred on Tuesday. By comparison, over ten thousand non-settler Israelis demonstrated in cities across the country on Saturday night for social justice, after half a million hit the streets last summer, with consensus-level support in the polls. Nothing changed.

Yet now MKs kowtow and ministers cower to a gaggle of fringe radicals instead of hundreds of thousands of their law-abiding middle and working-class citizens. Remember the people of the Hatikva neighborhood struggling with the poverty and the influx of refugees due to a negligent government? I doubt if the MKs do – those people are now dust; the settlers are golden.

Finally, I do not tolerate threats of violence for political gain. Ulpana residents said they would resist evacuation at any cost, and were quoted in Israel Hayom saying: “We will risk our lives. There is going to be a world war.” There can be no clearer statement of intention of violent action.

Rather than being feted, they ought to be apprehended. At present it seems that the compromise of shifting the buildings down the road will prevail; the vote is considered likely to fail if it is held. But the damage I have feared for years now is more stark than ever: occupation behavior does not stop at the Green Line. There is no ‘democratic Israel’ inside the wall, because the occupation is not geography, it is a mentality. And it cannot co-exist with democracy.

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    1. sh

      Didn’t they say that ten more houses would be built for each one moved? That – according to Netanyahu, if my memory serves me right – would serve to discourage Palestinians from bringing more claims like this to the courts.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Yes, SH, I was going to point that out if you hadn’t:
      Netanyahu reveals plan to build 280 housing units in Beit El
      Michal Shmulovich, Times of Israel, Jun 4 2012
      Netanyahu told his Likud colleagues Monday that the government would build 280 new housing units in the West Bank settlement of Beit El, as part of a plan to relocate five buildings in the adjacent illegal outpost of Ulpana. The prime minister was trying to convince his party’s MKs not to vote Wednesday for a “regularization bill” that would legalize the Ulpana outpost, and others like it, bypassing a Supreme Court ruling on the issue. Early indications were that the tactic would prove effective, with reports that the bill is set to fail or possibly be withdrawn by its sponsors. On Sunday, Netanyahu had presented an alternative to the bill, a three-point plan to dismantle the five buildings and rebuild them elsewhere within Beit El, a few hundred meters away. The Supreme Court has ruled that they must be demolished by Jul 1. Speaking to the Likud faction on Monday, Netanyahu said Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had approved the plan to demolish and rebuild the five buildings, constructed on land that the state has accepted is privately Palestinian-owned. He also said the cost of dismantling the five buildings would be between 6 and 7m shekels, and that the cost of rebuilding them would be another 6 or 7m. The 280 new buildings (sic – means apartments – RB) to be constructed in Beit El would fulfill the second stage of Netanyahu’s plan, according to which some 10 housing units would be added to existing settlements for each one demolished.

      Reply to Comment
    3. AYLA

      it’s 9am. This makes me want to go back to sleep. No news before noon.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      The one thing I don’t understand about this case and that of Migron is that no Palestinians have actually made any claim that the land in question is their property. How can the state and the Supreme Court state that the land is “private” Palestinian land if no one has ever proven any ownership?

      Reply to Comment
    5. ish yehudi

      everyone is aware of the location of the houses in ulpana slated for destruction right? it is a single row of houses within the fence of Bet El. Meaning that destroying these houses has nothing to do with entitling a Palestinian to the land they have lost- because the land is within a town boundary and there is no way for them to build or farm… it is an action of principle and to create precedent. A principle which to a degree i agree with, but only if it is applied with a sense of the reality and the common ground.

      yes- the rule of law which must reign supreme and i know everyone wants to lash back at the settlers for their lack of respect of authority etc etc.. but destroying houses and costing taxpayers etc is hard to justify in any event- but especially as this land is not destined to return to its owners- by anyones imagination.
      Tzedek and the abstract ideals of justice should try to find a better way of fitting into reality– this one reeks of agendas in its ignoring the people on the ground.. Petty politics (not that the right is clean of this- its equally disgustin) but lets try to refine our sense of justice and its application into the sticky situations.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Danny

      Netanyahu is nothing if not a brilliant mach’er – a buyer and seller. You give me 5 homes here, I’ll give you 50 there. And he orchestrates the whole charade in the knesset to actually make him look like a leftist (or so he thinks). Now, he can show Obama and Merkel that he has removed settlers from Palestinian land, while in reality he has built net 45 new settler units. Brilliant! And Obama will pat him on the head and say “Good, Bibi. You done good.” SICKENING.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Arib

      You must now be really concerned for those Bedouin villages in the Negev, like Al Zarnoog, built illegally on private Jewish land. With equal application of Supreme court rulings, they now have no recourse left before their own illegal settlement of 350 houses is put on the block to be demolished.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Piotr Berman

      ARIB: “build illegally on private Jewish land”

      This is a lie. The land is confiscated land of native tribes that belongs to the state or para-state organizations.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Arib

      Piotr, you can believe what you like but I have in my hands the British Mandate land registry documents that show clearly Jewish owners on the land Al Zanoog is sitting. Purchased front the Bank Of Palestine in 1932. Of course then registered in the Israeli Land Registry after 1948. Your “big lie” story just has no historical, factual backing……..

      Reply to Comment
    10. Moschops

      Let’s face it, this game has been played for 45 Years. “They Protest, We Build”

      What ever is Legal is whatever the Israeli government says is Legal.
      To put it brutally: In essence, Jews are Legal; Palestinians are Illegal.

      Reply to Comment
    11. anna

      Arib: So I take it Israel is authorizing and subsidizing the building of new homes for the Bedouins whose present homes will be demolished – as they are doing for the settlers?

      No? Well what a surprise that is.

      What a surprise…

      Reply to Comment