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Legalising settlements and liquidating the West Bank in the Trump era

Palestinian protesters throw stones at Israeli soldiers during clashes in Nablus, West Bank [Nedal Eshtayah/Apaimages]
Palestinian protesters throw stones at Israeli soldiers during clashes in Nablus, West Bank [Nedal Eshtayah/Apaimages]

A new Israeli law has "legalised" previously illegal settlement "outposts" built on privately-owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, making them permanent; they can no longer be removed or demolished. The law will lead to official recognition of nearly 4,000 housing units built by Jewish settlers in 53 outposts over an area of 8,000 acres of private property in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

All of Israel's settlements are built in violation of international law, no matter what Israeli law might say. According to the Rome Statute, the transfer of a population into occupied territories is a war crime. Israel, though, has tried consistently to distinguish between settlements constructed with government approval and the ones that are built as random outposts by settlers on land seized from Palestinians in possession of documents proving their ownership.

Read: Israeli committee approves outpost 'Legalisation bill'

The new law removes this distinction, and opens the door literally for the theft of more land. It protects individuals and institutions responsible for the "outposts" from any legal consequences, and ensures that the new homes cannot be demolished. The Palestinians who own the land cannot apply to the Supreme Court for the removal of the houses; the court is limited to ordering either financial compensation or granting the owners alternative land.

This deals a blow to the judicial system and a violation of the principle of the rule of law because it cancels any rulings issued by the Supreme Court for evacuating such housing units. It also gives the final decision on these matters to the legislative and executive branches and not the judiciary.

In recent years, the settlement controversy has figured prominently in the rhetoric of the right-wing, for whom the legalisation of illegal settlers prepares the ground for the annexation of the West Bank and Jerusalem in its entirety. It also helps to guarantee the votes of settlers, who are themselves becoming ever more extreme.

Also read: UN, UK, Turkey slam Israel's settlement legalisation law

Following the approval of the Supreme Court to evacuate a number of these outposts, a draft to legalise them (according to Israeli law) was approved by the Knesset at its first reading in December. Television images of the evacuation of the settlement of Amona in the beginning of February added to the insistence of Netanyahu's partners in the coalition from the extreme Jewish Home party to push for "legalisation".

Israel showed the dramatic scenes from Amona to the world, playing to the full its charade of a state based on the rule of law taking its own citizens off the land by force and giving the homes to the Palestinians. In reality, it is preparing for the more important task of seizing more vital areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Related: Settlers cause closure of checkpoint near Nablus in response to evacuation of Amona

Netanyahu was keen to get the approval of the Trump administration for the new law. He has thus been trying to postpone its final approval until after his scheduled meeting with the US president on 15 February, but his spokesman told AFP that there is no longer a reason to do so. Netanyahu has clearly already communicated with Washington and told them about the law.

America's green light for a law that legitimises the theft of land; abolishes key provisions of the judicial system; and gives predominance to the occupation over the courts — and is also "unconstitutional" according to the Israeli Attorney General and in violation of international law — can only mean the chaotic launch of a new chapter in US-Israel relations. Although expected since Trump's inauguration, it is still a bad sign.

This demonstrates that the White House announcement that, "Settlement will not be an obstacle in the face of peace," confirms Trump's positions announced during his election campaign. The president and his team may not see settlements as an obstacle to peace, because the two-state solution is not central to their concept of peace, which was reflected by his announcement that he will not push Tel Aviv to negotiate such a solution.

Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, comes from a Jewish family known to support settlements; he has been appointed to monitor the peace process. Another supporter of settlements, David Friedman, has been appointed as US ambassador to Israel; he approves of the annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The signs are not good.

Analysis: The international community is paralysed in the face of Israel's colonial settlements

Israel's Supreme Court is going to reconsider the law and it may end up rejecting it. Nevertheless, the fact that it passed through the Knesset by a majority of 60 votes to 52, and the US has given the green light, shows the world the nature of the new relationship between Israel's extreme right and the Trump administration.

Today, Israel realises that it is at a defining moment whereby its arrogance can legalise an unconstitutional law that protects settlements and encourages land theft just a month after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2334, which criminalises settlements and calls for an end to them.

Analysis: The international community is paralysed in the face of Israel's colonial settlements

On the ground, Israel announced approval for six thousand new housing units within two weeks of Trump's inauguration. It seems that Tel Aviv is pushing to lay the groundwork for the right-wing plan to annex the West Bank by stealth. That's why it made clear to President Trump that it wishes to postpone the plan to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, in what seems to be an attempt to take more important and fundamental steps that will not face very close scrutiny by Palestinians and Arabs.

The Israeli right-wing's path is reflected in three ways: frenetic construction of settlements since 2009; protecting illegal settlement outposts and legalising them through the new law; and then preparing, through similar laws, to annex major settlement blocs, such as Ma'aleh Adumim. The latter will mean the complete separation of the north of the West Bank from its roots, making it impossible for the two-state solution, and perhaps paving the way for reoccupying the whole of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Read: In defiance of UN, Israel reportedly set to approve thousands of settler units

It seems that the international and regional situation is suitable for this path, reflecting the political ideology of the Likud, along with Netanyahu's need to keep his coalition with the far-right and his desire to cover-up the repercussions of corruption charges against him.

At the regional level, Israel does not face any resistance to its plans. Any threats that it used to face were neutralised during the "Arab Spring"; the regime in Egypt is secure, there is open war in Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah is also busy in the Syrian swamp. Israel also neutralised Turkey with an agreement for re-normalisation of relations and Ankara has given a number of indications of a change in rhetoric towards the Palestinian issue.

The Arabs are paying more attention to confronting the Iranian threat and they have made it the standard for dealing with the US administration. Trump's tough warnings to Iran were received with Arab praise for his foreign policies. This may be at the expense of developing mechanisms to face Washington's newly destructive policies against the Palestinians.

Things don't look any better in terms of Europe, which is the most international party adhering to the protection of the two-state solution. Europe is drawn more inwards these days, in light of a series of threats, most notably the future of European unity after the decision by Britain to leave the EU, and the growing right-wing populism which may even reach Paris and Berlin.

At a time when the Palestinian cause is at the bottom of the list of Arab priorities, Trump's green light to the controversial land-theft law suggests that Israel will seek US cover to end the conflict with Palestine once and for all; in Israel's favour, of course, and in line with an extreme right-wing agenda.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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