Israel’s new settlement law is an affront to democracy

If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it,” Daniel Reisner concluded in 2009, after a decade serving as head of the Israel Defense Force’s international law department. “An action that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries.”

As proof, Reiner cited the “targeted killings” Israel conducted continually until the practice was, in his words, “in the center of the bounds of legitimacy.” The Israeli government’s latest attempt at legitimization takes the form of a new law passed by Parliament on Monday. The bill retroactively legalizes government expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land on which settlements or outposts were built “in good faith or at the state’s instruction.” In effect, it makes the illegal legal.

The bill offers compensation to the owners of expropriated land, but this is just a fig leaf to make the illegal practice sound fair. Israel is well aware that no Palestinian will accept compensation, which we consider a means of selling one’s country and forfeiting its future.

The ploy of declaring private Palestinian land as government property and acquiring it for settlement is not new. But the bill signals a further erosion of Israel’s willingness to respect the international consensus regarding the status of the West Bank as occupied territory, as confirmed in a United Nations Security Council resolution in December.

In 1979, I defended Francois Albina, a resident of Jerusalem whose privately owned land had been taken by the Israeli military and given to the Jewish Agency in order to build the settlement of Beit Horon. At the end of a long legal battle that lasted several years, the Israeli military court accepted the spurious claim that the transaction involving privately owned and registered Palestinian land was done in good faith and allowed it to stand.

A view of the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim (foreground) and Mishor Adumim (behind), as seen from Palestinian lands in the West Bank on Feb. 7. (Jim Hollander / European Pressphoto Agency)

Yet there is something new, and newly pernicious, about this week’s bill. Declarations of private land owned by Palestinians as public property belonging to Israel used to be made by the military government. Now, the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, is legislating for the West Bank as if it were formally annexed to Israel.

Two Israeli rights groups, Adalah and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, have asked Israel’s Supreme Court to overturn the law, but the fact remains that the bill is part of a larger trend. In Israel, de-democratization is proceeding at a frightening pace. Israel has quietly not been allowing citizens of the United States and other Western countries whom it suspects of being pro-Palestinian to enter the country, according to reports by Al Jazeera and the website Mondoweiss. More recently, it openly indicated that those who advocate the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel will not be allowed in. International law and such basic principles as the protection of private property and freedom of speech are being seriously eroded.

The Palestinians had pinned their hopes on the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But after years of being provided with evidence of the criminal behavior of Israeli officials and generals, the court has not investigated the allegations. The Palestinian Authority has been reluctant to submit a claim to that court because the U.S. has warned Palestinian leaders that suing Israel in international courts would trigger severe steps by the White House, including the closure of Palestine Liberation Organization offices in the American capital and an end to economic aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be traveling to the U.S. next week to hold talks with President Trump. Netanyahu is likely to seek guarantees that Washington will issue no objection to the new law and do all it can to shield Israel from being sued in the International Criminal Court — a liability made greater by the bill. He may well be successful on both counts. After all, Trump eerily echoes the Israeli government’s disdain of peaceful dissent when he says that Homeland Security will allow into the United States only “those who love us.”

Where, then, does hope rest? Only in an active and mobilized American public that is now beginning to stir and raise its voice, supported by institutions that are willing to speak out. At times like these, the public and the courts are the most effective guarantor of democracy.

The greatest enemy of Israeli democracy has not been Palestine, or, for that matter, Syria, Iran or the Islamic State. It has been the erosion of democratic values within the country itself. In Israel, de-democratization has been underway for a long time now — the half-century that the government has spent occupying Palestinian lands.

Under President Trump’s leadership, the U.S. seems to be learning fast from Israel’s right wing. For democracy to survive around the world, and especially in the Middle East, it is more important than ever for the American public and its institutions to be heard, loud and clear, before the world begins to accept the unacceptable.

Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and the author of several books on the Middle East, including “Where the Line is Drawn: A Tale of Crossings, Friendships, and Fifty Years of Occupation in Israel-Palestine,” due out by the New Press in June. He lives in Ramallah, West Bank.

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