Israel’s land theft law is just the tip of the settlement iceberg

Anyone who condemns Israel’s new law authorizing the theft of private Palestinian land, while forgetting the mass theft engendered by the settlement enterprise as a whole, is doing an injustice to the fight for equality in this land.

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett at a Knesset plenum session to vote on the formalization law, Jerusalem, February 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett at a Knesset plenum session to vote on the formalization law, Jerusalem, February 6, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset on Monday night passed the “formalization law” (also translated as the “normalization law”), which retroactively legalizes dozens of settlement outposts in the West Bank — almost 4,000 housing units. The law essentially formalizes settler theft of private Palestinian land, allowing the state to force compensation on Palestinians for land they own that has been taken over by settlers.

The law is shocking. Israel’s attorney general, a Netanyahu appointee, has already said it is unconstitutional and that he would not be able to defend it in the High Court of Justice. Several human rights NGOs have already signaled their intent to petition the High Court to strike down the law.

The law is also remarkable because the occupied Palestinian territories have never been annexed to Israel, which means that the laws within them are (supposed to be) determined by officers in the military regime, not by Israel’s parliament which has no jurisdiction.

But putting aside the shock that such terrible legislation was passed, we need to remember that the law is a drop in the ocean of the settlement enterprise, Israel’s biggest project in the occupied territories.

Every Israeli government over the last 50 years has contributed to bringing more than 750,000 of its citizens into the territories Israel occupied in 1967. Establishing settlements in occupied territory is against international law, as the UN Security Council recently reminded us. No country in the world has ever recognized the legality of the settlements, even if the Israeli High Court of Justice has declined to do so.

There is a simple logic to forbidding an occupying power from transferring its own citizens into the territory it’s occupying: firstly, to allow for a solution to the conflict by preventing a state from developing long-term interests through military rule; secondly, to guard against the theft of resources from the group under occupation; and thirdly, to prevent a situation in which two separate groups live on the same land under separate legal systems.

The reality in the occupied territories proves these points: thanks to the settlements, the West Bank is home to Israeli citizens who live under the Israeli democracy and enjoy all the same rights as those who live inside Israel, and alongside them Palestinians who live under an Israeli military regime. The latter group lacks basic rights, cannot choose who governs them, and their lives are determined by military laws issued by Israeli army officers.

A Palestinian from the West Bank village of Bil’in looks out at the Modi’in Illit settlement bloc. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
A Palestinian from the West Bank village of Bil’in looks out at the Modi’in Illit settlement bloc. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

The separate legal systems permit the wide-scale theft of resources. It is not happenstance that only 1 percent of land in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank (over 60 percent of the territory) is zoned for Palestinian development, and the rest for Jews. And with over 750,000 settlers, it will become increasingly difficult to speak of an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories.

Every Israeli government since the occupation began has taken part in the systematic theft of Palestinian land — from Shimon Peres, one of the founding fathers of the settlements, to Yitzhak Rabin, under whose leadership the number of settlements doubled, to the current ruling coalition. Supreme Court justices have also participated, rubber-stamping the theft, as have banks, which give mortgages for the building of illegal housing on Palestinian land.

Quarrying and mining companies take part as well, along with the companies that helped build the West Bank separation wall. The wall, which in contravention of an international legal determination does not follow the Green Line, has effectively annexed Palestinian land for the benefit of the settlements.

Soldiers and police officers who keep watch over this theft and maintain the discriminatory regime are also participants in the settlement enterprise. The list of contributors goes on.

The logic behind every government action in the occupied territories over the last 50 years has been to do “whatever is good for the Jews.” There was, in the past, an attempt to portray this logic as an ‘enlightened occupation,’ with at least the minimum respect for a semblance of fairness. The formalization law represents the total abandonment of this pretense.

A Jewish settler watches as a caravan home in the illegal outpost of Ramat Gilad is removed, after which it was relocated in a another West Bank settlement March 14, 2012. (Roy Sharon/Flash90)
A Jewish settler watches as a caravan home in the illegal outpost of Ramat Gilad is removed, after which it was relocated in a another West Bank settlement March 14, 2012. (Roy Sharon/Flash90)

One can assume that the Supreme Court will in due course try to restore this veneer of fairness, although not before freezing the evacuation of at least 16 illegal outposts on private land, and not before settlers have seized the opportunity to grab more land.

But with or without these outward appearances, the settlement enterprise is the heart of the occupation. Anyone who speaks out about the formalization law while forgetting this fact is doing an injustice to the struggle for peace and equality in this land.

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One final comment, in response to anticipated reactions to this post: this piece is not meant to imply that Jews shouldn’t be able to live in any specific area, region or territory, or that the only solution is the dismantling of all the settlements, or that there needs to be an area with no Jews in it.

The fundamental problem with the settlements — what makes the occupation an occupation — is the military regime that implements two separate legal systems for Jews and Palestinians. A shared existence is possible in this land, whether in a single state whose subjects are all citizens with equal rights, or two states that live in peace side by side, or in a federation. The problem is the theft and unilateral policy making which arises from the perception of Jewish supremacy and exclusivity in every area, backed up by military force.

If we do away with the military regime, return what has been stolen and shattered, recognize Palestinian rights and together devise agreements based on equality in this land, anything is possible. But it has to be together. Otherwise, everything we are doing is just part of one big formalization law that has been going on for the last 50 years.

This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here. Translated by Natasha Roth.

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