West Bank settlers win Israel parliament vote

JERUSALEM – Israel’s settler movement celebrated Tuesday after parliament annulled part of a law banning them from residing in areas of the occupied West Bank the then Israeli government evacuated in 2005.

That year the government of Ariel Sharon, a long-time settler champion turned peacemaker, oversaw a unilateral withdrawal by Israel from the Gaza Strip, and the removal of Jewish settlers from the Palestinian enclave and four settlements in the northern West Bank.

Legislation passed at the time barred Israelis from staying in those areas, but an amendment approved by lawmakers overnight permits Israelis to return to the West Bank settlement sites near the city of Nablus.

The parliamentary vote notably paves the way for Israeli authorities to formally allow settlers to return to Homesh, the only one of the four sites whose residents were forcibly removed before their homes were demolished.

Most governments around the world consider all Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories as illegal but Israel disputes this.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in December, at the helm of one of the most right-wing administrations in the country’s history. 

Amid a surge in violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the UN Security Council last month called on all parties “to observe calm and restraint, and refrain from provocative actions”.

The council in a February 20 statement expressed its “strong opposition to all unilateral measures that impede peace — including Israeli construction and expansion of settlements, confiscation of Palestinians’ land and the ‘legalisation’ of settlement outposts.”

Israel’s far-right settler lobby has made Homesh a symbol of their cause.

A small group of activists returned to the site in 2009 and built a yeshiva, a Jewish seminary, which was evacuated dozens of times by Israeli forces until the military ultimately allowed them to stay. 

In December 2021, an AFP photographer saw the school and a dormitory at the site which were made from tarpaulin mounted on wooden frames. The site was being guarded by the Israeli military. 

Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, himself a West Bank settler who has claimed “there isn’t a Palestinian people”, heralded the parliamentary vote as “historic”. 

The legislative move “starts to erase the shame of expulsion” and “advances the regularisation of our presence at Homesh,” he wrote on Twitter. – AFP