The Israeli Knesset is expected on Wednesday to pass the first and second readings of a controversial Bill that will retroactively legalise thousands of West Bank settler homes built on private Palestinian land.
Education minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party said the Bill, which passed its preliminary stage after a 60-49 vote in the Israeli parliament on Monday night, marked the beginning of Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank.
“This is an historic day: today, Israel’s Knesset shifted from the course of establishing the Palestinian state to a course of sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. The regulation Bill is the spearhead in applying sovereignty.”
During the stormy Knesset debate, opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog referred to the the proposal as "national suicide" and a "black day for the Knesset", before tearing up a copy of the Bill on the Knesset podium.
The revised regulation Bill follows months of wrangling between the various coalition partners and acute tensions between prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party and the Jewish Home, both vying to appear as defending the settlers' interests.
At the insistence of the centrist Kulanu party, led by finance minister Moshe Kahlon, the largest West Bank outpost, Amona, north of Jerusalem, which was built entirely on private Palestinian land, was left out of the Bill . The community, which is home to 40 families, now faces a December 25th court-imposed deadline for demolition.
According to the anti-settlement Peace Now watchdog, the regulation Bill means that 3,921 buildings built illegally by settlers on Palestinian land will now be legalised, with the Palestinians being granted financial compensation. Some 3,125 of the buildings are in established Jewish settlements and nearly 800 in illegal hilltop outposts.
The international community regards all settlements as illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.
Although the regulation Bill is almost certain to pass into law it is unclear if it will be upheld by the courts. Attorney general Avichai Mandelblit refused to endorse the Bill, saying it was unconstitutional and failed to conform to Israeli and international law, warning that he would refuse to represent the state in any petitions to the high court of justice.
The Palestinian foreign ministry called on the US administration to officially recognise the state of Palestine and support a United Nations resolution against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in response to the Israeli move.
Human rights groups , which have supported Palestinian land ownership claims in the Israeli courts , condemned the regulation Bill as a “land grab”, saying that Palestinians will no longer be able appeal to the courts against their land being stolen.
Although the government portrayed the Bill as a major victory for the settlement enterprise, they still face a backlash from residents of the Amona outpost who vowed to resist police and troops if they come to remove them from their homes by the December 25th deadline. Thousands of right-wing militants have vowed to join them on the hilltop in an attempt to thwart the evacuation.