On Monday, Israel’s parliament passed a bill to allow Israeli citizens back into the sites of four settlements in the occupied West Bank, which were evacuated at the time of the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. The settlements were built on what the High Court of Justice ruled as private Palestinian land, prompting international criticism. The decision still requires the signature of an Israeli military commander to be enforced. This move by the most right-wing and nationalist coalition government in Israel’s history could further inflame tensions with Palestinians ahead of Ramadan. Most of the international community considers the settlements illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.
Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, and since then, some 600,000 Jews have settled in 140 settlements built in these areas. Nearly 18 years ago, Israel passed a law mandating the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the evacuation of four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank: Sa-Nur, Ganim, Kadim, and Homesh. The latter move was intended to provide Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank and improve the quality of life of Palestinians. Israelis were prohibited from entering the evacuated area without permission from the Israeli military. However, a group of settlers managed to establish a Jewish religious school and an unauthorized outpost at Homesh, which the new coalition government has been pushing to legalize.
The return of settlers to the area will be “a huge security burden and a focus of settler violence,” according to the Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now. This decision will also pave the way for establishing many more outposts in an area that is now almost entirely Palestinian. The Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman denounced the decision, saying the Israeli government was defying international law and working to sabotage international efforts to de-escalate the situation. The US said it was deeply troubled by the vote in Israel’s parliament. Similarly, a spokesperson for the European Union said the Israeli move “hampers the possibility to pursue confidence-building measures” and represents “a clear step back” away from a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last month, the Israeli government announced the legalisation of nine unauthorized outposts and approved the planning and building of more than 7,000 new housing units in existing settlements. However, at a meeting with Palestinian Authority officials in Egypt on Sunday, it reaffirmed a commitment to stop discussing any new West Bank settlement homes for four months and to stop authorizing any outposts for six months. It was part of a series of measures designed to calm tensions ahead of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which starts later this week and coincides with the Jewish festival of Passover and the Christian festival of Easter. This move by Israeli lawmakers may be viewed as being at odds with that pledge.