February 9, 2017; Jordan Times and Haaretz

The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), both nonprofits, went to court last week to challenge a newly enacted Israeli law that retroactively legalized the seizure of Palestinian-owned lands upon which about 4,000 homes have been built.

On behalf of 17 families whose property is at risk because of the legislation, the two organizations asked the court to annul the law and reestablish their clients’ property rights. Suhad Bashara, a lawyer for Adalah, told Haaretz that the law “severely infringes on Palestinian residents’ and refugees’ right to private property.

The law was designed to resolve the long-standing dispute between Israel and the Palestine Authority over land for Israeli settlements. According to Haaretz, the so-called “Regularization Law” is meant to “regulate settlement in Judea and Samaria and allow its continued establishment and development.”

A more straightforward name would, in fact, be “Expropriation Bill,” since it legalizes government expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land retroactively. The law’s opponents would probably prefer to put things even more bluntly and call it the “Theft Law”—a law that legalizes settlers living on land that doesn’t belong to them.

From the perspective of the families who have sought judicial relief, the issue is land ownership, farming rights, and legacy. Those who supported the new law back before the Knesset’s vote framed it as a response to the needs of settlers, calling it an end to an era of uncertainty for the families living on the land and providing proper compensation for the owners under an eminent domain–like process. The sponsor of the bill, Habayit Hayehudi Chairwoman Shuli Mualem-Rafaeli, saw the bill as protecting “the homes of citizens who made their home in Judea and Samaria, with the encouragement of Israeli governments.”

From a wider political perspective, the law can be seen to as making a major statement about the future of Israel and Palestine. Those who oppose the law see it as endangering any hope for a permanent peace agreement or a two-state solution. Dan Meridor, who had served in previous governments as a Likud minister, called the law “evil and dangerous”:

Israel’s Parliament never regulated Palestinian property ownership in the West Bank because the Arabs of Judea and Samaria did not vote for the Knesset, and it has no authority to legislate for them. These are basic principles of democracy and Israeli law.

Dr. Husam Zomlot, a top strategic aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Haaretz that the law “embraces the agenda of radical settlers. The law that passed in the Knesset kills any chance left to the two-state solution and will bring about the collapse of the strategy embraced by the international community to solve the conflict.”

While Israeli nonprofits fight in court to protect landowner rights, American Jewish organizations find themselves drawn into the middle of the controversy. Morton Klein, president of the American nonprofit Zionist Organization of America, said in a statement:

This bill properly provides legal protection to not throw innocent Jews out in the street, who, with [government] assistance, built on land that was not claimed by Palestinian Arabs at the time…it also properly provides compensation of 125 percent of the land value or comparable land to the Palestinians who did not claim the land at the time of Jewish development.

This fervent support for the law puts ZOA out of step with most other Jewish communal organizations. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described the Knesset’s actions as a “lose-lose policy that significantly undermines Israeli democracy. […] Not only is this legislation illegal under the 4th Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, but it is at odds with the very raison d’être of Israel as a haven and a beacon of hope.”

In the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States, this issue takes on a new urgency. The long-term impact will leave scars on Israel and the fracturing American Jewish community.—Martin Levine