Judges throw a spanner in the settlers’ immoral project
While all eyes are on Israel’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, the government and the Knesset have received a slap on the wrist from the High Court of Justice. A panel of nine judges struck down the preposterous Expropriation Law (officially the Law for the Regularization of Settlement in Judea and Samaria), which in 2017 retroactively legalized the expropriation of Palestinian private land for the building of outposts and other structures in the occupied territories.
Every aspect of this law, from its inception to the way it was defended in court, reeks of illegality, injustice and immorality … unless you belong to or support the settler movement.
There is almost universal agreement that Israel’s building of settlements in the occupied territories is unlawful and in clear contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits an occupying power from transferring parts of its own population to the territory it occupies. International humanitarian law categorically prohibits the establishment of settlements in territories taken by military force, never mind any transfer of population to them.
The Expropriation Law was a despicable attempt to legalize the swath of arbitrary and illegal confiscations of Palestinian land to build or expand settlements. The settlers managed to expropriate this land because no one cared enough to stop them.
Thankfully, Israel’s justice system has demonstrated that this blatant act of theft was also illegal. Had the High Court not quashed the Expropriation Law, it would have been interpreted by the government and the settlers as a green light to continue with their actions, which, as well as being illegal and immoral, have sown more resentment among Palestinians and further eroded any chance of a peaceful solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
The High Court, like the NGO that petitioned against the retrospective legislation, was alarmed that this abuse of power would normalize the behavior of both settlers and occupying force. Should that happen, what could Palestinian landowners have possibly done when faced with one of the world’s best equipped and heavily armed militaries, and settlers also armed to their teeth and with no respect for boundaries?
It is no secret that the occupation and the occupying forces favor the Jewish settlers and oppresses the local Palestinians, but for the government to use it in court as a justification for land theft beggars belief.
The imbalance of power between occupied and occupiers leaves the Palestinians of the West Bank at the mercy of the settlers, especially those in the outposts who are outlaws even by Israel’s definition, and over whom the authorities have completely lost control.
They are leading a hate campaign against Palestinians, claiming that the land doesn’t belong to them, so at most they should be tolerated; while some settlers would not hesitate, should the opportunity arise, to displace them internally or even expel them altogether to the other side of the Jordan River. But this ruling by the High Court may just bring at least a temporary halt to their unrestrained theft of other people’s property.
If stealing land to build new settlements and expand others were not bad enough, the attempt to legalize it retroactively added insult to injury and showed a complete disregard for any notion of due process.
One of the pillars of the democratic legal system is certainty, which defines any act as either lawful or unlawful at the time it is carried out, and thus precludes retroactive changes in the law. To open the gates for such laws would undermine the justness and fairness of the legal system altogether and lead to arbitrary behavior by governments, who might even be able to prevent rivals from ever gaining power.
There was the threat of another dangerous precedent being set in the attempt to legitimize this land grab, by the government’s argument in court that the law should treat Israelis and Palestinians differently because they have different relationships with the authorities.
It is no secret that the occupation and the occupying forces favor the Jewish settlers and oppresses the local Palestinians, but for the government to use it in court as a justification for land theft beggars belief. It confirmed in a court of justice the nexus between settlers and government, both of whom have dropped even the pretence of civility or shame in their relations with the occupied Palestinian population.
Annexation sentiments are not new, and the attempt already in 2017 to “regulate” confiscation of private land was part and parcel of the process. The justification of such actions with a disturbing mixture of religious messianism, racism and security imperatives is creating a permissible environment for naked thuggery. In the process these settlers have forgotten at least one of the biblical Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not steal.”
But there is also a ray of hope in this sorry saga. A concerted effort by Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations and NGOs, as well as Palestinian local authorities, has brought success after a prolonged legal campaign to stop the injustice of confiscating the private property of Palestinians, whose recourse to law is limited. The judges voted 8–1 in favor of quashing the expropriation statute and reasserting the rule of law in the occupied West Bank.
This should give a real boost to those who want to see a two-state solution and an end to the occupation, as well as those who believe in the human rights of every person on this planet.
It should also encourage countries, governments and individuals who support the rule of law to echo the court’s condemnation of the violation of Palestinians’ human, political and civil rights, and to support the many Israelis who share these values.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg