Israel’s parliament on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a proposal that would legalize hundreds of homes built in West Bank settlements that sit on private Palestinian land.
The vote marked a victory for pro-settlement nationalists that dominate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. Although the bill has drawn heavy international criticism and faces tough legal questions, many hard-liners are also hopeful things will change after President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January.
The proposal was sparked by a 2014 order from Israel’s Supreme Court to evacuate the illegally built settlement outpost of Amona by December 25. The court set the deadline after determining the outpost was built in the mid-1990s on private Palestinian land.
The legislation would retroactively legalize Amona and dozens of other outposts, as well as neighbourhoods in existing settlements found to have been built on private Palestinian land.
In all, an estimated 2,500 homes would be affected, while Palestinian landowners would be eligible for compensation.
Members of the Jewish Home, a nationalist party affiliated with the settler movement, sponsored the legislation. They say the affected residents have lived in these homes for years, sometimes decades, and should not be uprooted.
“A nation cannot be an occupier in its own land,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home said ahead of the vote, berating Israel’s opposition parties for standing against the draft bill.
Opponents say the bill is illegal and is a dangerous attempt to override the nation’s highest court. Israel’s attorney general, who was appointed by Netanyahu, has said he will not be able to defend it in court.
“Never in the history of the state of Israel, never, did the Knesset vote totally against the state’s laws, the rule of law and international law,” said opposition leader Isaac Herzog. “This is a law that recognizes robbery and theft.”
The bill still must pass three more votes in parliament — meaning it could be watered down or frozen in various committees.
The Palestinians and international community oppose all West Bank settlements, saying they pose an obstacle to peace. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, for a future independent state. Israel captured the territories in the 1967 Mideast war, though it withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
The U.S. State Department said this week that it was “deeply concerned” about the legislation. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau called it an “unprecedented” step that would break from previous Israeli policies.
“This legislation would be a dramatic advancement of the settlement enterprise, which is already gravely endangering the prospects for a two-state solution,” she said.
Egypt, a key Arab ally of Israel, has also condemned the legislation.
However, many Israeli hard-liners expect the United States to be far more tolerant of settlement construction after Trump takes office. Trump’s campaign platform made no mention of a Palestinian state, and many of his close advisers hold hawkish, pro-Israel views.