A few weeks ago, Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his security cabinet did what autocrats do. They simply declared nine illegal settler outposts in the occupied West Bank as legal under Israeli law.
The most revealing element was the timing. Netanyahu made his announcement when Israeli-Palestinian tensions were already disastrously elevated. The urge to provoke and punish superseded all.
A remarkable aspect of these so-called “wild” settlements in the West Bank is that they were never authorised by the Israeli government in the first place. Now the government proposes not merely to “legalise” them but to expand them in the area Netanyahu provocatively refers to as Judea and Samaria.
These communities have existed for many years, some have existed for decades, he said in a statement justifying the reckless work of his governing coalition of settler activists, ultra-right nationalists and religious parties. As if squatters’ rights trumped international law.
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To be clear, settlement communities are illegal under international law. And the settlers are not just a few scattered zealots staking a God-ordained claim to ancient lands. The size of their numbers and the scale of the land grab, heavily incentivised by government, is astounding. While the actual buildings of the settlements cover only 1 per cent of the occupied West Bank, their jurisdiction and regional councils extend to about 42 per cent of it, according to the Israeli NGO B’Tselem.
This conflict may be infamously complicated but there is nothing confusing about the settlements or their proponents
Over decades, more than 700,000 Jewish Israelis have illegally encroached in an area of 2.8 million Palestinians.
Tens of thousands of Palestinian homes and livelihoods have been demolished and whole communities displaced, daily subjected to humiliating aggressions and violent attacks by the settlers and Israeli military.
A few weeks ago, armed settlers, seeking revenge for the murder of two brothers by a Palestinian gunman in Huwara, massed outside a nearby village. A 37-year-old Palestinian blacksmith just returned from earthquake volunteering duties in Turkey was shot and bled to death while Israeli soldiers failed to clear the road for an ambulance. More than 350 Palestinians were injured that night. Dozens of homes and businesses were set alight along with hundreds of cars. The general commanding the Israeli military in the area described it as a “pogrom” – a term more usually applied to attacks on Jews in the Russian Empire a century ago. A prominent right-wing Israeli commentator, appalled by the army’s reported inaction, called the events “Kristallnacht in Huwara”.
What modern, civilised government supports such lawlessness and presumes the world will look away? This conflict may be infamously complicated but there is nothing confusing about the settlements or their proponents.
The EU condemned the “latest illegal land grab” on the grounds that such settlements are illegal under international law and called for a reversal as a matter of urgency. But impotence leached out of every word.
In his statement to the UN General Assembly last September, Micheál Martin said Israeli settlement building “continues to undermine – it would seem knowingly and deliberately – the viability and territorial contiguity of a future Palestinian State...” His frustration was evident.
Yet the Occupied Territories Bill, designed to ban trade between Ireland and any occupied territory – though aimed at Israeli settlements – was passed by the Dáil but never enacted. The Taoiseach’s contention that it would be more symbolic than practical may well be true (and supported by a 2018 Brookings analysis). But anyone who underrates symbolism should check out opinion polls asking whether Irish people would swap the tricolour or the national anthem for unity. Symbols matter.
In 2020, the UN published a list of 112 companies with business ties to illegal Israeli territories that included familiar names such as Tripadvisor, Airbnb, Booking.com and JCB. It was symbolic but important. Names stick.
We also know that Israeli public opinion is not homogenous. The Occupied Territories Bill, for example, was supported by former Israeli ambassadors, former members of the Israeli parliament and decorated scientists in a letter to this paper in May 2020.
Although the state of Israel has moved decisively to the right since then, Netanyahu’s repellent government is on notice from its own people that it can go only so far, at least when it comes to the protection of Israelis’ own pillars of democracy.
Proposed legislation to permit parliament to override supreme court decisions by a simple majority (which coincidentally would hand Netanyahu effective immunity from corruption charges) has triggered extraordinary protests from every sector including the elites of the air force, special forces and Mossad.
Following the International Criminal Court’s (ICC’s) warrant for Vladimir Putin, international law experts speculate that the court might now feel emboldened to pursue figures like Netanyahu. While Israel is not a member of the ICC – which means the court has no authority to investigate crimes committed in the country, Jerusalem argues – the ICC ruled in 2019 that it does have jurisdiction in the Palestinian territories. Two years later it agreed to open legal proceedings against Israel and Hamas, last elected in 2006 to govern Gaza and designated a terrorist organisation by the EU and the US, on suspicion of war crimes.
Netanyahu’s overreach on the supreme court may prove politically fatal for him. Having skated so close to the wind, Israeli mindsets may open up to some brave, bold decisions and not only about the state of Israel.
Generations of Palestinians are waiting and watching.