By Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund
Earlier this month, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down a law known as the “Regularization Law.”
This terrible law was passed by the Knesset in 2017. Despite its Kafkaequse and numbingly bureaucratic nomenclature, opponents of the law called it what it was: an “Expropriation Law,” since it allowed for the retroactive legalization of West Bank settlements built illegally on privately-held Palestinian land.
In essence, the law aimed to turn the crime of land theft into something the state could call “legal.” It stipulated that a person who built on land that did not belong to them, but in fact to someone else, could keep that land. This law allowed the state to retroactively transfer the deed from Palestinian owners to settlers who had built on the stolen land while “compensating” the Palestinians. It was shocking in its brazenness.
When the law was originally passed, defenders of civil and human rights in Israel immediately challenged it. NIFC’s flagship project partner, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), along with Peace Now and Yesh Din: Volunteers for Human Rights, petitioned the Supreme Court on behalf of 27 Palestinian local councils, four Palestinian landowners, and 13 Israeli organizations.
This week, when law was struck down, ACRI’s Executive Director Sharon Abraham-Weiss celebrated the victory, saying that the law’s “entire aim was to legalize serious violations of stealing land.” According to attorneys from Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Jerusalem Center for Human Rights, the law left Palestinian subjects in the West Bank “legally unprotected because it allows them to be dispossessed of their private property by Israeli West Bank settlers on the basis of their ethnic-ideological outlook.”
Let’s be clear. This court ruling is a victory for justice – but it is by no means the end of the road.
This law was part of a broader and ongoing strategy by the Israeli government to retroactively legalize illegal settlements – and ultimately steal the land. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, the plan is now to annex large swaths of the West Bank, either wholesale or piecemeal, entirely outside the context of negotiations with the Palestinians.
Back in 2005, the late-prime minister Ariel Sharon tasked the former chief state prosecutor Talia Sasson (and the past Board President of NIF’s International Board) with investigating the role of government departments in building unauthorized outposts in the West Bank. Her report found that, in fact, “State and public authorities took part in breaking the law.” She wrote, “It seems as if the violation of the law has become institutional and institutionalized.” Back in 2005, Sasson provided guidance for dismantling these illegal structures – and restoring some semblance of the rule of law in the occupied territories.
However, Prime Minister Netanyahu and his settler allies have done everything they can to reverse this process – solving the inconvenient problem of the state’s involvement in illegal acts by attempting to wave the magic wand of “regularization.” Presto: what was once illegal is now kosher!
In 2012, Prime Minister Netanyahu, commissioned his own report from former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, whose report was less a document of accountability and more a roadmap for retroactively legalizing settlements previously deemed illegal under Israeli law.
Those who opposed this law, from the outset, saw the “Regularization Law” as creeping annexation – an attempt to apply Israeli law and sovereignty over occupied territory.
While it was not the first such act of creeping annexation, it was the first that would have applied Israeli law to territory in the West Bank. Previously, Israel’s right-wing governments had sought other means for extending sovereignty into the West Bank – to change the status of occupied territory and thereby cement the permanence of Israel’s presence. Past measures applied Israel’s laws to settlers living in occupied territory – extending the purview of Israel’s criminal registry and of its Council for Higher Education.
Yet in the current precarious moment, as Israel’s leadership contemplates annexation of uncertain scope, Israelis and Palestinians are facing a potentially much broader and more brazen act of expropriation than the nasty law the Court just struck down. As Michael Sfard, one of Israel’s foremost human rights attorneys, has pointed out, unilateral annexation would be Israel’s greatest act of land expropriation, achieving on a massive scale what the recently overturned law attempted to do in more modest fashion.
Recently, in Haaretz, Sfard made the case that “Israeli-style annexation is above all a move leading to dispossession and expulsion. It’s an aggressive real estate maneuver. The land to be annexed includes areas owned by Palestinians, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that all these areas, to the last plot, will be expropriated – some immediately, some in a process lasting years.”
A source close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told the Ma’ariv newspaper that applying sovereignty would “solve” most of the Regularization Law’s problems. In other words, annexation would achieve the same end by other means: transferring ownership of privately held Palestinian land to settlers – but on a massive scale.
Annexation poses a terrible threat to the millions of Palestinians who would be hurled into a permanent, disenfranchised, stateless limbo — with no rights, no dignity and no equality. But it poses terrible threat to Israelis, too. Annexation would undermine Israel’s very foundation as a democratic state.
As our community faces the prospect of Israel knowingly dismembering its own democracy in favor of a system of permanent and systemic discrimination, it is incumbent on all of us who care about Israel’s future to speak out against this folly. It’s time we hear from all of those communal leaders who, in private, acknowledge that annexation would be a disaster for Palestinians, for Israeli democracy and for the American Jewish community’s relationship to Israel. Now isn’t the time to remain silent.
We don’t yet know the scope of the proposed annexation. But we do know that we face a moment that will change everything. Now is a time when all of our voices will be counted.
You can be certain that the New Israel Fund global network – alongside the vibrant community of Israel’s human and civil rights organizations we support on the ground – will be doing everything we can to fight in these fateful weeks and long afterward to stop annexation, bring an end to Israel’s occupation, and promote a democratic, compassionate and just vision of what Israel can be.