Israel’s Land Theft Law Just Tip of Settlement Iceberg

by Haggai Matar

The Knesset on Monday night passed the “formalization law” (also translated as the “normalization law”), which retroactively legalizes dozens of settlement outposts in the West Bank — almost 4,000 housing units. The law essentially formalizes settler theft of private Palestinian land, allowing the state to force compensation on Palestinians for land they own that has been taken over by settlers.

The law is shocking. Israel’s attorney general, a Netanyahu appointee, has already said it is unconstitutional and that he would not be able to defend it in the High Court of Justice. Several human rights NGOs have already signaled their intent to petition the High Court to strike down the law.

The law is also remarkable because the occupied Palestinian territories have never been annexed to Israel, which means that the laws within them are (supposed to be) determined by officers in the military regime, not by Israel’s parliament which has no jurisdiction.

But putting aside the shock that such terrible legislation was passed, we need to remember that the law is a drop in the ocean of the settlement enterprise, Israel’s biggest project in the occupied territories.

Every Israeli government over the last 50 years has contributed to bringing more than 750,000 of its citizens into the territories Israel occupied in 1967. Establishing settlements in occupied territory is against international law, as the UN Security Council recently reminded us. No country in the world has ever recognized the legality of the settlements, even if the Israeli High Court of Justice has declined to do so.

There is a simple logic to forbidding an occupying power from transferring its own citizens into the territory it’s occupying: firstly, to allow for a solution to the conflict by preventing a state from developing long-term interests through military rule; secondly, to guard against the theft of resources from the group under occupation; and thirdly, to prevent a situation in which two separate groups live on the same land under separate legal systems.

The reality in the occupied territories proves these points: thanks to the settlements, the West Bank is home to Israeli citizens who live under the Israeli democracy and enjoy all the same rights as those who live inside Israel, and alongside them Palestinians who live under an Israeli military regime. The latter group lacks basic rights, cannot choose who governs them, and their lives are determined by military laws issued by Israeli army officers.

The separate legal systems permit the wide-scale theft of resources. It is not happenstance that only 1 percent of land in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank (over 60 percent of the territory) is zoned for Palestinian development, and the rest for Jews. And with over 750,000 settlers, it will become increasingly difficult to speak of an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories.

Every Israeli government since the occupation began has taken part in the systematic theft of Palestinian land — from Shimon Peres, one of the founding fathers of the settlements, to Yitzhak Rabin, under whose leadership the number of settlements doubled, to the current ruling coalition. Supreme Court justices have also participated, rubber-stamping the theft, as have banks, which give mortgages for the building of illegal housing on Palestinian land.

Quarrying and mining companies take part as well, along with the companies that helped build the West Bank separation wall. The wall, which in contravention of an international legal determination does not follow the Green Line, has effectively annexed Palestinian land for the benefit of the settlements.

Soldiers and police officers who keep watch over this theft and maintain the discriminatory regime are also participants in the settlement enterprise. The list of contributors goes on.

The logic behind every government action in the occupied territories over the last 50 years has been to do “whatever is good for the Jews.” There was, in the past, an attempt to portray this logic as an ‘enlightened occupation,’ with at least the minimum respect for a semblance of fairness. The formalization law represents the total abandonment of this pretense.

One can assume that the Supreme Court will in due course try to restore this veneer of fairness, although not before freezing the evacuation of at least 16 illegal outposts on private land, and not before settlers have seized the opportunity to grab more land.

But with or without these outward appearances, the settlement enterprise is the heart of the occupation. Anyone who speaks out about the formalization law while forgetting this fact is doing an injustice to the struggle for peace and equality in this land.


One final comment, in response to anticipated reactions to this post: this piece is not meant to imply that Jews shouldn’t be able to live in any specific area, region or territory, or that the only solution is the dismantling of all the settlements, or that there needs to be an area with no Jews in it.

The fundamental problem with the settlements — what makes the occupation an occupation — is the military regime that implements two separate legal systems for Jews and Palestinians. A shared existence is possible in this land, whether in a single state whose subjects are all citizens with equal rights, or two states that live in peace side by side, or in a federation. The problem is the theft and unilateral policy making which arises from the perception of Jewish supremacy and exclusivity in every area, backed up by military force.

If we do away with the military regime, return what has been stolen and shattered, recognize Palestinian rights and together devise agreements based on equality in this land, anything is possible. But it has to be together. Otherwise, everything we are doing is just part of one big formalization law that has been going on for the last 50 years.

Haggai Matar is an Israeli journalist and political activist. This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here. Translated by Natasha Roth. Republished, with permission, from +972Magazine. Photo of Palestinian children running toward border wall by Justin McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Israel like the United States has its leftists. The only difference is the Left is quite weak in Israel because of their abysmal failures of their policies. Sadly they are still quite strong in Israel.

    The author simply adopts typical anti-Zionist rhetoric. The settlements are not illegal under any law. There is no such thing as “international law” in the way it is typically expressed because there is no international sovereign. There are mutual agreements and treaties but Israel has never signed any treaty or convention making the West Bank occupied territories. Instead they are disputed land that did not belong to any country immediately after the 1948 war. They are not Palestine because no such state was created or formed (the Arabs having rejected the proposal). They are not Jordan even though it occupied the West Bank until 1967 because Jordan has abandoned its claims. So they belong to Israel.

    While Israel can for political reasons choose to treat the West Bank any number of ways including annexation, creating a Palestinian state or doing something in between (like they have tried for decades) they are not obligated to.

    The “normalization law” is legal just like President Trump’s executive order banning certain persons from entering the country is legal, but the courts may disagree in both instances. Courts are impacted by political views in both countries.

    The UN is not a law making body and it does not have sovereignty over Israel. It does not matter if 100+ countries claim the occupation is illegal. Muslim countries take that view for obvious reasons and other countries take views based on their self-interest and for some time it was in their self-interest to appease the Muslims. The days are beginning to wind down. The reality is the UN is not capable of doing anything about it. The UN cannot even deal with much more serious threats to the World than whether Jews settle in the West Bank, such as Syria, Iran and North Korea.

    It would be dandy if the Arab people of the West Bank could be absorbed into Israel and granted full civil rights. It would also be suicidal and no different than if the USA of 1950 imported 200 million Soviets. It would be preferable for the two people to separate but the West Bank is not a viable point of separation and never was. The Jordan river is the only realistic dividing point. So get ready.

    Leftist nonsense like this article is pointless because it cannot deliver the fictional peaceful Muslim Arab people who will live side by side the Jews.

  2. Jeffrey is indulging in an old lawyer’s-trick: if the argument is weak then lather it on thick.

    He knows full well that this statement is nonsense:
    “There is no such thing as “international law” in the way it is typically expressed because there is no international sovereign.”

    Ladies and Gentlemen, our weasel-words for today are “typically expressed”, because it then allows Jeffrey to construct a straw man.

    There is “International Law”, as even the Israel High Court of Justice and the Israeli government acknowledge (even if Jeffrey doesn’t).

    Here’s a perfect example: The Hague Regulations 1907, which has been u.n.i.v.e.r.s.a.l.l.y. regarded as being “declaratory of the laws and customs of war” since the Nuremberg Tribunals of 1946.

    Meaning that the Hague Regulations are u.n.i.v.e.r.s.a.l.l.y. acknowledged as being applicable to all armed conflicts and all belligerent occupations.

    That is acknowledged as such by both the IHCJ and the GoI, as Jeffrey would know if he read “HCJ 2056/04 Beit Sourik Village Council v. The Government of Israel”.

    It’s that case that ensures that this law will be thrown out in the courts, because….
    Paragraph 23: “The general point of departure of all parties – which is also our point of departure – is that Israel holds the area in belligerent occupation (occupatio bellica).” …. “The authority of the military commander flows from the provisions of public international law regarding belligerent occupation. These rules are established principally in the Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, The Hague, 18 October 1907 [hereinafter – the Hague Regulations]. These regulations reflect customary international law.”

    So there is no question – none whatsoever – that the Hague Regs are applicable to THIS occupation.

    Annnnnnnnnd, this is what the Hague Regulations has to say……
    Article 46: “Private property cannot be confiscated.”

    Sorry Jeffrey, but you don’t know what you are talking about.

  3. Jeffrey: “There are mutual agreements and treaties but Israel has never signed any treaty or convention making the West Bank occupied territories.”

    This is more nonsense from Jeffrey, and he must surely know it.

    No nation needs to “sign” the Hague Regulations. They are u.n.i.v.e.r.s.a.l.l.y. acknowledged as being “declaratory of the laws and customs of war” and, as such, are legally binding on all states regardless of whether or not the state has signed the Hague Convention of 1907.

    Again, this must be stressed: both the Israel High Court of Justice and the Government of Israel accept that this is true, and that Jeffrey is telling an un-truth.

    And what does the Hague Regs have to say about belligerent occupations?
    Article 42: “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.”

    There is no doubt that under that article the West Bank became Israeli-occupied territory, regardless of Jeffrey’s obfuscatory shouts of Disputed! Disputed! Disputed!

    You can “dispute” who should ultimately own that territory, Jeffrey. Argue away, I won’t stop you. But until that issue is u.l.t.i.m.a.t.e.l.y. decided in a peace treaty then the c.u.r.r.e.n.t. status of this territory is not in dispute.

    It is an “occupied territory”, and the occupying power is the “IDF”.

    Jeffrey: “Instead they are disputed land that did not belong to any country immediately after the 1948 war.”

    The Israel High Court of Justice disagrees with you, Jeffrey.
    As does the Government of Israel.
    “23. The general point of departure of all parties – which is also our point of departure – is that Israel holds the area in belligerent occupation (occupatio bellica).”

    But PLEASE NOTE: Jeffrey is demanding that we accept that this territory is “disputed”, which ipso facto must mean that it “isn’t Israeli territory”.

  4. YR, I’m simply being practical. The Israeli Supreme Court is very liberal and does wield unusual power, mostly because Israel lacks a proper constitution. It needs one badly. Obviously the Supreme Court “chose” to accept certain international conventions as being valid law, it can just as easily choose not to. To have real law, there must be a sovereign who can enforce it. There is none. There are many occupations around the world and nothing is being done about any of them, although Israel’s is by far criticized the most.

    The problem remains that “international law” is not capable of settling a state of war between two hostile people. You can’t pass and enforce a declaration that makes Muslim Arabs accept Jews and live in peace with them. This happens inside Israel proper because Israel has the law and the power to enforce good behavior from its Arab minority. But outsiders, like the UN, The EU, or individual countries cannot accomplish this.

    Therefore references to the Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention or various UN resolutions serve on purpose. None of them will or can resolve the dispute. It can only be resolved by the stronger imposing its will on the weaker, but in a way that leaves the weaker willing to accept their fate. It does not mean beating them into submission but that is certainly one way.

    For those who say this is not possible, that is ridiculous. The allies imposed their will on Germany and Japan in 1945 and the following years. The German and Japanese people were truly beat into submission and then encouraged to change their viewpoint and be more productive. Israel does not need to do the same to nations as powerful as Germany or Japan. It simply needs to impose its will on the Arabs who refuse to accept the idea of Jewish State with sovereignty over what they call Palestine. Israel has not had a free hand to act because of the power of Arab states and the staying hand of the superpowers and Europe. But things have changed dramatically. Most Arab states have more to worry about than the politics of the Palestinians. Russia has its own agenda which is not necessarily against Israel and the Republicans firmly control US politics.

    Now is the time for Israel to act and not be troubled by liberal platitudes which the Arabs have never and probably will never comply with anyway.

    Thus, when Israel annexes some or all of the West Bank the “international law” you refer to will be a nullity because there will no longer be “belligerent occupation.” Also, “private property” is defined by “property law” of the state. The property law of Israel allows for the confiscation of property with just compensation, just like the law of the USA.

    I have always invited other posters here to deviate from criticisms of Israel and explain exactly what they would have Israel do, explain exactly what the Arabs would do in response, and explain exactly how there can be any reasonable expectation that it will work out as they envision. Give it a try.

  5. Jeffrey: “Instead they are disputed land that did not belong to any country immediately after the 1948 war.”

    So please note that Jeffrey is acknowledging that the West Bank DIDN’T belong to Israel pre-1948.
    This is important, because it means that the territory needs to BECOME Israeli territory post-1967.
    Which means, of course, that at some stage Israel has to “annex” the territory.

    Hold that thought, because it’s important.

    Jeffrey: “They are not Palestine because no such state was created or formed (the Arabs having rejected the proposal).”

    Hmmm. I think that Jeffrey will find that during that time (indeed, up until 1988) the Palestinians were claiming ALL of the (ex)Mandated territory for themselves.

    I point that out because Jeffrey’s sentence might make you would think that the Palestians were saying “Wot? Us? No, none of this belongs to us”.

    Reality was quite the opposite.

    Jeffrey: “They are not Jordan even though it occupied the West Bank until 1967 because Jordan has abandoned its claims.”

    Jordan had, of course, “abandoned its claims” by using this language: “without prejudice to the status of any territories that came under Israeli military government control in 1967”.

    So not only did Israel sign a TREATY wherein it admits that this is a belligerent occupation (did you notice that, Jeffrey?), but in that same treaty Israel and Jordan both agreed that Jeffrey can not pull a cheap sleight of hand.

    Jeffrey: “So they belong to Israel.”

    Annnnnnnnd, there it is, ladies and gentlemen, Jeffrey’s cheap sleight of hand.

    In Jeffrey-world the territory belongs to Israel because – Abracadabra! – Nobody Else Wants It.

    The most ludicrous part of Jeffrey’s ludicrous argument is that he doesn’t appear to have noticed that ISRAEL HASN’T ANNEXED THIS TERRITORY EVEN THOUGH IT HAS HAD 50 YEARS TO DO SO.

    Q: Which means?
    A: Well, obviously, by Jeffrey-logic then that refusal to annex “proves” that Israel doesn’t want it either.

    Jeffrey appears to be an exceptionally inattentive lawyer, or at the most charitable an exceptionally poorly-briefed one.

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