The United States NGO, Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), has detailed the recent steps taken by the Israeli government to systematically apply Israeli domestic law to illegal settlements. These developments critically build upon practices already in existence that are raising deep concerns, as summed up in a statement on 1 June by the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, that Israel’s ‘illegal settlement activity promotes the de facto annexation of the West Bank’.
FMEP notes that for 50 years, the Israeli state’s official position has been that the West Bank is outside the borders of sovereign Israel, held by Israel under a temporary military occupation. This position conforms with the international law of belligerent occupation. Israel’s position means that Palestinians living in the West Bank are governed by military law and regulations, under the authority of the Israeli Army and its “Civil Administration.”
However, the Israeli government has also placed Israeli settlers living in the West Bank under Israel’s domestic justice system, where they enjoy the same rights, protections, and benefits as Israeli citizens living inside Israel. In addition, the Israeli military, in its capacity as the de facto sovereign over the West Bank, has routinely issued orders taking new Israeli domestic laws and extending their application into settlements and over settlers. Taken together, these practices amount to a de facto imposition and extension of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Palestinian West Bank.
In May 2016, Israel’s Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, announced her intention to revive past efforts to pass the so-called “Civil Law” bill. That bill, first introduced in 2014, would force the Israeli army to issue military orders extending Israeli domestic law over the settlements. When asked about the bill, Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennett said, “I believe that all of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] should be under Israeli law, just as it is in the Golan Heights, though the whole world would object.” Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni said, “The right-wing government is quietly beginning the process of annexation [of the West Bank] in order to impose its ideology there. The end result of this is the collapse of the idea of having two states, the beginning of two completely different legal systems in one country, enormous damage to Israel’s image internationally and, ultimately, 2.5 million Palestinians with the right to vote and a Knesset majority.” These comments indicate that behind the Israeli government’s drive to apply Israeli domestic law to the West Bank, is a desire to annex large parts of it.
Since the Justice Minister’s announcement in 2016, a number of further moves to institutionalise the application of Israel’s domestic law to the illegal settlements have been made:
- On 6 June 2017, in her capacity as the Chair of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation (a body of Cabinet ministers who vote on whether the government will support Knesset legislation), the Justice Minister and the Tourism Minister issued a directive that the committee will not consider endorsing any legislation that does not state how it can be applied to the settlements. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked stated “the rule must be that the law applies to the settlers unless there is good reason not to.” Knesset member Shuli Moalem-Refaeli said she had “no desire to conceal” the government’s intention to annex the West Bank.
- FMEP reports that in May 2017, the Justice Ministry held a seminar for the legal advisers in government ministries, as part of an effort to establish a system for applying Israeli laws to the settlements. Reportedly, each government ministry will have an official who is tasked with coordinating his or her ministry’s system of laws as they pertain to the West Bank.
- On 3 January 2018, the Knesset House Committee, pursuant to the 6 June 2017 directive of Israel’s Justice Minister, instructed lawmakers to discuss how every new bill can be applied to the settlements – either directly by primary legislation or through a military order. On the same date, the Justice Minister told the Knesset House Committee that a new unit has been established in her ministry that is responsible for “the subject of legislative equality in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank].
- On 21 January 2018, for the first time, Israeli Cabinet members discussed whether 12 new legislative bills were applicable to the settlements. FMEP reports that the Israeli Attorney General issued new procedures requiring Ministers to prepare, as part of their preliminary formulation of a bill, a legal opinion on whether the law can be applied to the territories with or without a new military order. As part of the Cabinet’s discussion of the 12 new bills, the Cabinet decided that at least two proposed bills – regulatory eggs quotas and a privacy bill – could apply to the settlements without a military order. Following this, on 18 June 2018, the Knesset passed into law a bill that will allow Israeli chicken farmers located in the settlements to sell their personal egg quotas to farmers in sovereign Israel – effectively merging the egg markets of the occupied West Bank and sovereign Israel into one entity. FMEP notes that the bill is a further expression of Israeli sovereignty over the settlements in the occupied territory and continues the economic blurring of the Green Line.
- On 13 February 2018, the Knesset passed a bill to extend Israeli domestic law over universities and colleges in the settlements. The “Ariel Bill” effectively annexes colleges and universities in Israeli settlements by bringing them under the authority of the domestic Israeli Council for Higher Education.
- On 25 February 2018, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted to support a bill that would strip Israel’s High Court of Justice of its jurisdiction over certain West Bank petitions, transferring jurisdiction to the Jerusalem District Court. Under the proposed law, Palestinians living in the West Bank seeking legal recourse in disputes with settlers or the Israeli military (including disputes involving travel permits, building permits, land ownership and freedom of information) would be forced to go to the Jerusalem District Court. Since 1967, the court of first jurisdiction for cases related to Palestinians living in the West Bank has been the Israeli High Court of Justice, reflecting the extraordinary nature of Israeli judges issuing extra-territorial legal rulings. The bill would institutionalise the application of Israel’s domestic legal system to the West Bank. Israel’s Justice Minister, who sponsored the bill, made clear that her goal is to strengthen the position of settlers in court cases involving Palestinians. An official at the Justice Ministry elaborated, stating that the minister views the High Court of Justice as “overly concerned with international law and with protecting the rights of the ‘occupied’ population”. Then, on 28 May, the Israeli Knesset advanced a bill through its first reading that, if passed, will give the Jerusalem District Court jurisdiction over land disputes in the occupied West Bank. Clearly, the Justice Minister’s stated motivations for the bill show a disregard for the international rule of law. It is also deeply concerning that the minister is seeking to further limit Palestinians’ access to justice. Attempts to avoid compliance with obligations under international law are especially disquieting.
These very concerning developments in relation to systematically applying Israeli domestic law in the occupied West Bank, show that the Israeli government is clearly committed to entrenching its effective annexation of much of it in disregard of the fundamental international law prohibition on annexation of territory, and to consolidating the position of Israelis living in illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
All of the above-mentioned developments are recorded in FMEP’s ‘Creeping Annexation’ tables, which monitor the application of Israeli domestic law to the West Bank. They can be viewed here.