Knesset passes amendment repealing Disengagement Law for northern West Bank in final vote

A Law that allows settlers to enter the territories of the four settlements in the north of the West Bank and that Israel evacuated from as part of the Disengagement Plan in 2005, was approved in the Knesset on the night between March 21-22, 2023. The law marks a significant milestone in changing the north West Bank region from a contiguous Palestinian territory to a space with settlers, outposts, and settlements. In the short term, the law is intended to legalize the illegal outpost of Homesh, which is located on private Palestinian lands. In essence, the law is destructive to the two-state solution. From a security perspective, the law will increase friction between settlers, soldiers and Palestinians, and endanger their lives.

Peace Now: “Alongside the regime coup that this government is advancing, a messianic coup is taking place, which will create serious facts on the ground in a region that is entirely Palestinian and thus the aim is to prevent a future Palestinian State. Furthermore, the presence of Israelis in the northern West Bank is dangerous, provokes friction, and causes harm to human lives. Thus, it is a tremendous security burden and a source of settler violence. This decision will be a cry for generations.”

Background and Explanation:

In 2005, Israel evacuated all of its settlements in the Gaza Strip and four settlements in the northern West Bank (Sa-Nur, Ganim, Kadim, and Homesh). The evacuation was carried out based on the Law for the Implementation of the Disengagement Plan. The Law that was now approved in Knesset refers only to the northern West Bank and not to the Gaza Strip, and cancels articles 23 to 27 from the original Law from 2005. These articles prohibit Israelis from entering the evacuated area without the commander’s permission, and that deem violating the law is punishable by up to two years in prison.

The meaning is that Israelis will now be able to enter freely the evicted settlement areas like any other area in Area C, and security forces will not have the authority to evacuate them. In practice, the changes in the law will have drastic implications. Among others, the law will harm the lives of Palestinians in the northern West Bank, will constitute a severe blow to the two-state solution and to the security of both Palestinians and Israelis, and will also encourage and promote settler violence and the theft of private Palestinian land in general, and particularly where the outpost of Homesh is at.

The impact of the amendment to the law on the Palestinian territory: a security threat to human life and a severe blow to the two-state solution.

Whilst the current version of the proposed law does not directly authorize establishing settlements on the land, allowing Israelis to enter the evacuated areas will have a significant impact on the space and lives of Palestinians in the northern West Bank.  We are already familiar with the phenomena of the increasing and ongoing presence of Israelis in Palestinian areas that are not settlements. Throughout the year, settlers organize various expenditures adjacent to Palestinian areas like tours, protest marches, prayer events, family gatherings, and others, which are often accompanied by heavy military security. We estimate that the change in the law will lead to an increase in Israeli presence in the northern part of the West Bank, which in turn will significantly disrupt the livelihood of Palestinians in these areas and increase friction between the populations.

Furthermore, even if according to the proposed law, there is no possibility of returning and settling on the land, it is highly likely that once settlers reach the northern West Bank with more ease, there will be attempts to establish outposts in the area and pressure to establish settlements in the area will increase. The establishment of outposts and settlements in the northern West Bank constitutes a severe blow to the two-state solution. In the entire West Bank, there are almost no continuous Palestinian areas without settlements or outposts. Furthermore, in all previous negotiations, this region was an area that Israeli governments did not have territorial demands towards. The proposed law is thus the first major step to change the North part of the West Bank into a space with settlements, with the aim of preventing the possibility of establishing a viable Palestinian State, and thus reaching a future political and peaceful agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Establishment of Homesh

In particular, the law will be a milestone in the re-establishment of Homesh settlement, which was mostly established on private Palestinian land registered in the land registry. Even though Homesh was evicted in 2005 as part of the Disengagement Plan, a small Yeshiva (religious school) located there acts as a major source of settler violence. Both the army, who protects the settlers, and the settlers act to prevent Palestinian farmers from reaching their land. It should be clear: the settlement of Homesh that was evacuated in 2005, and the illegal Yeshiva outpost that is currently there, are both on private Palestinian lands, and entry to this area is prohibited. However, in a reality where settlers are already trespassing into private Palestinian lands, and using violence as a means to achieve it, and where the military and the State enable this illegal and violent venture, removing the legal prohibition of the Disengagement Law on Israelis from entering the territories staying in the area will signal and send a clear message of encouragement from the government and Knesset saying: that settler violence and Palestinian land theft is effective and appropriate.

The law is part of a broader process of annexation

The amendment to the Disengagement Law is the first significant law in the government’s program in regard to the occupied territories, and joins the cabinet’s decision to legalize 15 outposts, promote nearly 7,200 housing units in the settlements, and the changes in the Civil Administration made by granting authority to Bezalel Smotrich, from the Religious Zionist party, as an additional Minister within the Ministry of Defense.

In this regard, it is important to recall that the coalition agreements between the Likud party and the Religious Zionist party, and the Jewish Power party, included extensive changes in the management of the West Bank. Among other things, it was decided to transfer authorities from the Civil Administration to the Minister within the Ministry of Defense, Bezalel Smotrich, as well as regularization of all outposts, particularly the Homesh and Evyatar outposts, easing of land registration laws in the occupied territories, cancellation of the Disengagement Law, and more. It can be said that the first law passed by the current Israeli government regarding the West Bank reflects the policies declared by the right-wing parties before the formation of the government and was clearly expressed in the coalition agreements.

The annexation of settlements is a violation of international law and not an internal Israeli matter

Since the disengagement was carried out unilaterally in 2005 and without an agreement with the Palestinians, the government of Israel chooses to present the issue as an internal Israeli matter, as if it is comparing the evacuated areas to the rest of the areas in Area C of the West Bank. However, the approval of the law has a significant dimension of annexation, both de facto and de jure. Not only will the law give rise to significant changes in the West Bank (de facto annexation), but its passing in the Knesset testifies to the continuation of the process of de jure annexation. As a reminder, the Knesset has no authority over the West Bank. In addition, all settlements violate international law and constitute an infringement on the basic rights of Palestinians to work their lands and to self-determination and sovereignty.

On the sidelines of the amendment, one can see the different attitude of the Knesset towards the Gaza Strip compared to the West Bank. The decision not to include Gaza in the proposed changes to the law indicates that the Israeli government has no intention of establishing new settlements in the Gaza Strip at this time. This is despite the fact that some MKs and even some of those responsible for the legislation initially demanded that the law include the Gaza Strip. Therefore, it remains to be seen what the future holds and whether the dreams of the settlers that arise in the first round may turn into nightmares for everyone in the third round.