JERUSALEM – In the first concrete attempt to counter the contentious new law legalizing thousands of West Bank settlement homes, two Israeli rights groups on Wednesday asked the country’s Supreme Court to overturn the measure.
Adalah and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center appealed to the high court, asking it to block implementation of the bill passed in parliament this week that sets out to legalize dozens of settler outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land. It was the first in what is expected to be a series of legal challenges to the law.
The law has sparked heavy criticism both in Israel and abroad, with critics saying it amounts to legalized land theft.
“This sweeping and dangerous law permits the expropriation of vast tracts of private Palestinian land, giving absolute preference to the political interests of Israel,” said Suhad Bishara, an attorney for Adalah.
She said the court gave Israel 30 days to respond. She added that Adalah had requested the court freeze the law’s implementation until its final ruling. In the meantime, the state can begin implementing the law, although the legalization process could drag on for years.
There was no immediate comment from the government.
Proponents claim the communities, some decades old and home to thousands of people, were built in “good faith” and quietly backed by several Israeli governments.
The West Bank is home to some 120 settlements Israel considers legal, as well as about 100 unauthorized outposts generally tolerated by the state. Under the law, many of those outposts will eventually be legalized, as well as hundreds of homes that were built unlawfully in government-approved settlements.
The Palestinians seek the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as parts of a future independent state. Most of the international community considers all Israeli settlements illegal and counterproductive to peace. Some 600,000 Israelis now live in the two areas.
The law, which was adopted by the Knesset on Monday, is the latest in a series of pro-settler steps taken by Israel’s hardline government since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
In all, the law would legalize some 3,900 homes built on private Palestinian land – about 800 in unauthorized outposts and the remainder in recognized settlements. The original landowners would be eligible for financial compensation of 125 percent of the land’s value, as determined by Israel, or a comparable piece of alternative property.
Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has said he will not defend it in court, saying the law allows for the expropriation of private property in violation of Israeli and international law.
It also is problematic because it applies Israeli law to occupied land that is not sovereign Israeli territory and where its Palestinian residents do not have citizenship or the right to vote.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also expressed misgivings about the bill, reportedly saying it could drag Israel into international legal prosecution, though in the end he agreed to support it under heavy pressure from within his pro-settler governing coalition.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, whose Jewish Home party spearheaded the legislation, has said the state plans to hire a private lawyer to represent it.
Amichai Cohen, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, said previous attorneys general have refused to defend the state, with the most infamous case surrounding a cover-up by Israel’s domestic security agency of the killing of two Palestinian militants who had hijacked an Israeli bus in 1984.
Israel’s attorney general at the time was forced to resign for his refusal and was replaced. Cohen said another case involved the appointment of an Israeli legislator who had been indicted for bribery to a ministerial post.
Cohen said it was not unprecedented for Israel to hire a private lawyer and that because the case involves the Knesset, its legal adviser can defend the law in court.
The United Nations as well as key allies like Germany, Britain and the Czech Republic, as well as Jordan, have condemned the legislation.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned that “should it be implemented, the law would further entrench a one-state reality of unequal rights, perpetual occupation and conflict.”
Amid a slew of international criticism, the Trump administration was conspicuously quiet about the law ahead of a trip to the White House by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week.
In December, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution declaring settlements illegal. President Barack Obama, a vocal critic of the settlements, cited the Israeli outpost legislation as one of the reasons for withholding the traditional U.S. veto and allowing the resolution to pass.
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