By Meron Rapport
On March 2012, Yaakov Kats, one of the extremists of the already extreme-right “National Unity” party, had a simple idea.

In order to solve the problem of settlements and outposts that had been built on private Palestinian land in the West Bank without official Israeli authorisation, a law should be enacted that would allow Israel to confiscate these lands from their owners.

In short, a law for legalising theft.

In its early stages, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked this initiative, which was perceived to be a flagrant violation of Israel’s self-declared commitment to international law.

Five years later, Katz is no longer a member of the Knesset and his party no longer exists, yet his law has lived on.

With Netanyahu’s blessing – the same prime minister who botched it before – Katz’s confiscation law passed with a comfortable majority in the Israeli parliament early this week.

Even if the Israeli High Court invalidates this confiscation law – euphemistically called “normalisation” law – the history of the legislation tells the story of the changing political map of Israel: how ideas which only a few years ago seemed radical and fringe have now moved into the mainstream.

Something old, something new

Confiscation of private Palestinian lands is, of course, not new in Israeli history. Right after the 1948 war, some four million dunams belonging to Palestinians who fled or were deported during the war were confiscated by the notorious absentee law.

One-third of the Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem annexed after the 1967 war were confiscated for the sake of building Israeli-only neighbourhoods.

Almost all of the settlements in the West Bank have been built on 90,000 hectares of land that Israel declared unilaterally as “state lands”.

The newly adopted “confiscation law” may therefore seem to be a minor evolution of this problematic tradition. Yet such a point of view misses the major political changes which have taken place in Israel in the past few years.

Since the 1967 war, Israel insisted on its ambiguous attitude towards the areas it occupies in the West Bank and Gaza.

On the one hand, it declined to annex the West Bank and Gaza, “voluntarily” applying the Fourth Geneva Convention which guarantees the protection of civilian populations under occupation. In innumerous cases in which Palestinians appealed to Israeli courts, they were allegedly treated according to this convention.

Yet at the same time, Israel refused to acknowledge that the West Bank and Gaza were occupied areas in the strict meaning of the term. This allowed it to settle hundreds of thousands of its citizens in the occupied territories, a move strictly forbidden according to the same Geneva Convention.

This ambiguity served Israel on the international level, allowing it to pretend that its control over the West Bank was open to negotiation and even portraying the settlements as temporary.

But it was even more important on the home front: it saved consecutive Israeli governments from the hard choice between annexing the West Bank and its 2.5 million Palestinians or withdrawing back to the 1967 borders.

Turning ambiguity against itself

Human rights organisations in Israel, such as Peace Now, Yesh Din and others, have tried to use this ambiguity in their favour.

As the Geneva Convention clearly and unconditionally forbids the confiscation of private property from civilians under occupation, they appealed in the name of Palestinian owners whose legally registered lands were used to build settlements.

Above all, the aim was to give these lands back to their original owners. But there was also a political motive behind these appeals: as the settlements were rightly viewed as the main obstacle for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the idea was that, through these appeals, the Israeli and international public would be reminded of the illegality of the settlements as a whole, whether built on “state lands” or on private land.

In recent years, some of these appeals were successful and settlers were evicted from private Palestinian lands and their houses were demolished.

The most recent and perhaps biggest success was in Amona, an illegal outpost built on private lands of the village of Silwad near Ramallah. After lengthy deliberations and delays, Israel’s High Court ordered the demolition of 40 houses built there and the return of the lands to their owners. The ruling was put into action last week.

‘We are not ashamed anymore’

But while these appeals and deliberations went on, the political map in Israel changed. The settlers, mainly represented by the Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennet, but also by Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, gained more and more political power. Bennet’s slogan in the last 2016 elections was “we are not ashamed anymore”.

Bennet’s message was clear: we, the settlers, are not ready to put up with 50 years of ambiguity concerning the future of the West Bank. These areas belong to the Jews, and only to the Jews, and therefore the Jews cannot be considered occupiers “in their own lands”. The idea of an independent Palestinian state in these areas should be abandoned forever.

Bennet did not do very well in the 2016 elections, but in the new government formed by Netanyahu, he gained an even bigger role than before. The education ministry went to him and the even more important justice ministry went to his fellow party member Ayelet Shaked.

With the help of settlement-sympathising ministers in the Likud, the pressure to abandon the ambiguity towards the West Bank and go for some sort of annexation steadily grew.

Up until Donald Trump’s election, Netanyahu chose not to choose. He failed to take up any serious negotiations with the Palestinians, but he also refrained from changing the status quo.

The Amona circus

Yet now, things are changing. Whether it is because Netanyahu sees Trump as his saviour or whether the mounting corruption investigations against him are having an effect, it is evident that Netanyahu is losing his long time cautious approach.

The vote in the Knesset in favour of the confiscation law is a clear indication of this new direction. After the final ruling of the High Court, there was nothing that Netanyahu or Bennet could do that would have saved Amona from eviction. Even the settlers who illegally inhabited this outpost were aware of that. So its evacuation last week became a big show.

Three thousand policemen spent more than 24 hours evacuating some 40 families. Even the violent clashes between a handful of extremist settlers and the police forces in the final stages of the process seemed premeditated.

The evacuation of Amona was meant to be portrayed as the last one. Just a few days later, the passing of the confiscation law, allowing the government to confiscate private Palestinian lands on which settlements were already built was unequivocal in its pronouncement.

The political mood in Israel is moving definitively towards annexation of parts of the West Bank or even a full blown annexation. The Palestinians, according to the scenarios put forward by right-wing politicians, will have to settle for a downsized autonomy or to live as second-class residents in areas ruled directly by Israel.

Yet it is not entirely clear that we will reach full annexation anytime soon. Netanyahu is still putting on the brakes. He may understand the consequences of Israel being literally or even officially declared as an apartheid state.

But tempted by Trump or cornered by the galloping settler movement and by the criminal investigations against him, he may change course. Israel’s ambiguous occupation may turn into an unambiguous annexation.

Tags: #ICC4Israel

Video of the Week New Clashes Erupt Between Israeli Security Forces, Muslim Worshippers

Temple Mount temporarily closed to Jewish visitors after clashes with police

The Temple Mount was temporarily closed to Jewish visitors on Wednesday at the order of Jerusalem District Commander Yoram Halevy after Jews broke visitation rules at the holy site, police said. The Jewish visitors were expelled from the compound for bringing sacred books to the Mount and trying to pray there. After one of the individuals was cautioned, another took out a holy book, and the group was expelled. Meanwhile, renewed clashes erupted between protesters and Israeli security forces near the Lion's Gate in the Old City, where police used stun grenades against the demonstrators. A regular dynamic has developed involving clashes between Palestinians and Israel Police over the past several days near the Lion's Gate. Dozens of Palestinians are present at the site on a regular basis, urging devotion to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount and condemning Israel. During Muslim prayer times, particularly the midday and nighttime prayers, hundreds and sometimes even thousands have been gathering there.

There have been outbreaks of violence during these periods, including stone-throwing or physical confrontations with the police. In most of these incidents, the police have been using stun grenades and sponge-tipped bullets to disperse the crowds. In a number of cases, journalists in the area have also suffered violence at the hands of the police. On Tuesday, Hassan Shaalan, a reporter for the Ynet news website, was struck by a policeman even after he identified himself as a member of the press. A group of Jerusalem-based journalists released a statement of condemnation over the incident and called on the police to permit reporters to do their jobs. The Jerusalem Police responded: "This involved an incident that took place in the course of violent disturbances of the peace that occurred in Jerusalem while the police were acting to remove the demonstrators from the street after some of them refused to vacate. The forces working on the scene are under constant threat to their lives.

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