Israeli settlers are at risk of losing West Bank special status

JERUSALEM -- Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank could soon experience the same military rule that Palestinians have lived under for 55 years.

Israeli settlers are at risk of losing West Bank special status

JERUSALEM -- Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank could soon experience the same military rule that Palestinians have lived under for 55 years.

The special legal status granted to settlers at the beginning of each month will end if Israel's parliament fails to act. This could have wide-ranging implications. The settlements will also ban two Israeli Supreme Court members from practicing law. The military courts that are normally reserved for Palestinians would apply to the settlements, and they would also be denied access to certain public services.

Although few people expect it to happen, Israel's government is on the verge of collapse.

"Without the law, it will be a disaster," stated Israel Ganz, governor at Benyamin Regional Council. This cluster of settlements is just outside Jerusalem. "The Israeli government will lose all control over this area. No police, no taxes."

Over half a century ago, Israel renewed regulations that extend a legal umbrella to almost 500,000 settlers today -- but not to more than 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank. The bill failed to pass Monday's vote. It will be brought to the Knesset for another vote next week to save the governing coalition and the legal arrangement.

This law provides separate legal systems for Jews in the West Bank and Palestinians there, which three major human rights organizations call apartheid. Israel denies that this allegation is an attack on its legitimacy.

Jessica Montell, director at HaMoked, an Israeli human rights organization that provides legal assistance to Palestinians, stated, "This is the piece legislation that enables apartheid."

"The entire settlement enterprise is dependent on them enjoying all rights and benefits of Israelis, even though they're in occupied territory."

The Knesset overwhelmingly supports maintaining separate systems. The bill was defeated because the nationalist opposition, which supports it strongly, refused to vote for it. This is in attempt to overthrow Israel's fragile and broad-based coalition government. Similar to the previous example, anti-settlement legislators voted for the legislation in order to keep the coalition afloat.

Israel captured the West Bank during the 1967 Mideast War and has since built over 130 settlements there. Many of these settlements resemble small towns with apartments blocks, shopping malls, and industrial zones. The West Bank should be the core of their future state, as the Palestinians desire it to. The settlements are viewed by most countries as a violation international law.

Israel refers the West Bank to its biblical names, Judea and Samaria. It considers it the heartland for the Jewish people. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett supports the expansion of settlements and opposes Palestinian statehood. Officially, Israel considers the West Bank disputed territory. Its fate is up for negotiation.

The 1967 emergency regulations were first promulgated and are regularly renewed. They extend much of Israeli law to West Bank settlements, but not to the territory.

Liron Libman, a researcher fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said that applying the law to the territory could be viewed as annexing it, with all of the political consequences that Israel didn't want to have. He was a former top Israeli military prosecutor.

Failure to renew the bill before the end of the month could have severe consequences.

Israel Bar Association requires that judges and lawyers reside in Israel. The law's cut-out would prevent settlers from being able to practice law before Israeli courts. This would include two Supreme Court justices. One of them recently upheld an order for hundreds of Palestinians to be relocated.

It is possible that more settlers could be charged in military courts for violating the bill, something Israel has long attempted to keep reserved for Palestinian suspects.

They could lose the right to use the national health insurance to treat themselves in the West Bank. The settlers may also lose the ability to update their status on the population registry and apply for national ID cards. This is something that Palestinians routinely refuse to do.

This law gives Israel legal grounds to imprison thousands of Palestinians convicted in military courts inside Israel. However, international law prohibits the transfer of prisoners from occupied territories. Israel could be forced to transfer those prisoners to the West Bank where there is only one Israeli prison, if the law is not enforced.

Many Israelis fear that the bill will not pass and the government will be overthrown. There is also the possibility that the Israeli authorities will find ways to minimize the worst effects, as they often bow to the demands of the settlers.

Ganz, the settler leader, said that he was not concerned. Ganz, the settler leader, said, "It's almost like when you owe the Bank 1 million dollars, you are concerned about it. But when you owe 1,000,000, the bank manager becomes worried."

Ganz answered the question "I agree with your 100%" when asked if separate legal systems are apartheid.

He prefers that Israel annexe what is known as Area C. This 60% of the West Bank is where Israel, under interim peace agreements, already has complete control. According to the U.N., Area C includes both settlements and rural areas where some 300,000. Palestinians live.

Ganz stated, "It's odd that different populations within the same area have different law." "So we must bring Israeli law to all of Area C."

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's former prime minister, flirted with an annexation two years ago. He then put it on hold in accordance with the United Arab Emirates to normalize relations.

Much of the international community and the Palestinians view an annexation of Israel as a violation international law. This would be a devastating blow to any hope of a two-state solution. It is widely believed that this is the only way to end the Israeli-Palestinian war.

Netanyahu and his supporters, who are now the opposition leader, strongly support the West Bank bill, but hope that its defeat will accelerate his return to power. It cannot be passed by the coalition alone because only a few lawmakers, mainly Palestinian Israeli citizens, refuse to vote.

Although the law was likely written with the possibility of a partition in mind, it may not have been intended to be. Many Palestinians view its persistence as evidence that Israel never intended to create a two-state state.

Diana Buttu (a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority) said that they could easily have ended the occupation by not passing this law time after time. It is passed by both the left and the right. This is why the idea of two states seems so absurd.


This report was contributed by Alon Bernstein, an Associated Press reporter in Jerusalem.

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