Israel’s parliament has repealed legislation that ordered the dismantling of four Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in a move that critics denounced as a step towards the creeping annexation of the territory.
The vote in the early hours of Tuesday fulfils a long-held goal of the far-right lawmakers who dominate Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline new government and want to re-establish the settlements, which most of the international community considers illegal.
The decision comes amid rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions, with violence in the West Bank at its highest level for nearly 20 years. Israel is also mired in a row with several Arab countries after Bezalel Smotrich, the ultranationalist finance minister, claimed on Sunday that there was “no such thing as Palestinians”.
On Israel’s streets, Netanyahu’s administration is facing the biggest wave of protests for a decade over a contentious plan to weaken the judiciary.
Israel dismantled the four settlements in the northern West Bank — Homesh, Sa-Nur, Ganim and Kadim — in 2005 at the same time as it withdrew from the Gaza Strip, sparking a furious reaction from settlers.
Tuesday’s vote means clauses barring Israeli citizens from entering or staying in the evacuated areas, and giving the army the power to remove any who tried, will no longer apply to the four settlements. The changes will not affect Gaza.
Settler leaders hailed the vote as a “great day for the state of Israel”. However, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, branded it “contrary to all resolutions of international legitimacy”, while Gilad Kariv, from Israel’s opposition Labor party, decried the changes as a “pre-annexation law”.
“[This is] a law that will lead to the establishment of more illegal outposts. A law that will increase the violent, bloody friction between Israelis and Palestinians,” Kariv said.
The changes are the latest in a series of initiatives by the government — which took office in December with ultranationalist settlers such Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir holding important security posts — that aim to boost settlements in the West Bank.
Last month, the government announced that it would retroactively legalise nine settlement outposts deep in the West Bank, which even Israel did not previously deem legal, and promote the construction of thousands of new settlement housing units.
Those initiatives drew condemnation from Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, who warned that they would “exacerbate tensions and undermine the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution”.
The West Bank makes up the bulk of the Palestinian territories but has been occupied by Israel since 1967. Over the past half-century, Israel has constructed more than 130 settlements there, which house some 700,000 settlers.
In 2005, then prime minister Ariel Sharon said that Israel would withdraw from Gaza and the four settlements in the north of the West Bank, arguing that Israel would have to cede them in any future peace deal with the Palestinians.
Since then settlers have fought to reverse the decision, with activists attempting to reclaim Homesh, which Israel’s top court has ruled was built on private Palestinian land, by building an illegal yeshiva on the site. They have repeatedly rebuilt it after it was demolished by the army.
Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO that provides support to Palestinians, said that Tuesday’s amendments were a “blatant violation of international law and another step in the annexation process led by the Israel government”.