Israel’s Parliament on Tuesday repealed legislation that barred settlers from four Jewish communities in the occupied West Bank that were evacuated in 2005, a preliminary move for now, but one that comes as tensions rise over government efforts to assert greater control over Palestinian territories.
The action, which will now allow visits to the settlements, is of great symbolic importance to the settler movement, but it is unlikely to mean any immediate new construction.
The Israeli military, which has overseen the West Bank since it was conquered from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war, first has to approve access to the site for settlers at a highly volatile time in the region. The Israeli government then would need to approve any reconstruction in the areas.
While the new legislation is seen as only a first step, at least for the moment, it comes amid a spike of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the occupied West Bank, and increasingly inflammatory rhetoric about Palestinians by members of the governing right-wing coalition who support the country’s settler movement. The United States has urged Israel to avoid unilateral measures that could exacerbate tensions with the Palestinians.
The amendment, which was introduced by right-wing lawmakers in December, was approved by a vote of 31 to 18 in the 120-seat Parliament. It took place in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when many lawmakers were absent. It is just one of many pieces of divisive legislation that the government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history — is trying to push through the legislature.
The coalition is also forging ahead with legislation that would give the government of the day greater control over judicial appointments as part of a plan to restrict the power of the Supreme Court, an effort that has brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis onto the streets to protest what they see as a danger to Israeli democracy.
The amendment passed by the legislature Tuesday repeals a section of the Disengagement Law of 2005, which laid out the terms for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian coastal enclave of Gaza. That included the evacuation and demolition of 21 settlements in Gaza that were home to about 9,000 Israelis, as well as the removal of four small settlements that housed about 800 Israelis in the northern West Bank.
The four settlements in the northern West Bank, near the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Jenin, were the subjects of the bill passed Tuesday. The amendment stipulates that the parts of the original law applying to the northern West Bank, barring Israeli citizens from entering or staying in the areas evacuated in 2005, no longer apply.
While permission to rebuild in the four sites is unlikely to be granted imminently, settlers appear set on using the new legislation to bolster their case for rebuilding settlements that were destroyed. At present, the four settlements do not have any permanent residents, but there is an unauthorized yeshiva, or Jewish seminary, operating in Homesh, one of the settlements. Israeli forces have occasionally demolished some of the makeshift buildings of the yeshiva and have sometimes restricted access to Homesh, but settler activists have maintained a daytime presence at the site for years.
Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader who is now finance minister and has some authority over settlement affairs in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called Tuesday’s vote the start of “a historic correction” in a Twitter post. He added that the government was beginning to “erase the disgrace of the expulsion from the law books, and to advance the authorization of the yeshiva at Homesh.”
The amendment passed Tuesday also comes amid fears of a surge in violence during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts this week. And it follows a meeting in Egypt of Israeli and Palestinian officials, along with other Middle Eastern and American representatives, that aimed to reduce tensions and the potential for violent conflict.
The start of this year has already proved to be the deadliest in more than two decades for Palestinians and Israelis. So far, more than 80 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to Palestinian officials, most in armed clashes during arrest raids by Israeli forces. At least 15 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians.
At the meeting in Egypt, and at a similar one last month in Jordan, Israel agreed to delay any discussion about settlement construction in the West Bank for four months and to postpone for six months any retroactive authorization of settlements built without government permission.
But Israeli ministers have dismissed those promises as meaningless since the government is already busy advancing plans for thousands of settlement housing units across the West Bank and for the retroactive authorization of 10 settler outposts approved in the days before the first gathering in Jordan. Most of the world considers all Israeli settlement in the West Bank to be a violation of international law.
Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation, has played a major role in galvanizing the Israeli right against institutions like the Supreme Court, though a right-wing government led by Ariel Sharon approved it.
The dismantling of the four settlements in the northern West Bank was included in the plan, under pressure from the United States, as a gesture for Palestinians in the West Bank and to reduce friction in the area.
The plan was driven by Mr. Sharon of the Likud, the right-wing party now led by Mr. Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu voted several times in favor of the original disengagement plan but ultimately turned against it.
Mr. Smotrich has been among the most inflammatory of the leaders of the coalition that took power in December. The alliance supports ultimately annexing all of the territory of the West Bank and has adopted a more confrontational approach to Palestinians than previous governments.
Over the weekend, Mr. Smotrich was recorded saying in a speech in Paris that there was “no such thing” as a Palestinian people and that they were a “fictitious nation” claiming “fictitious rights,” remarks that garnered international condemnation. The office of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, condemned Mr. Smotrich’s comments as “an attempt to falsify history” that unmasked “the true face of Israeli racism.”
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