Palestinians call for Israel to be punished over settlement law

A Palestinian cabinet minister has called on the international community to punish Israel over a contentious new settlement law.

It comes just hours after the Israeli parliament adopted the bill to retroactively legalise thousands of West Bank settlement homes built unlawfully on private Palestinian land.

The law, approved by politicians late on Monday, is the latest in a series of pro-settler steps taken by Israel's hard-line government since the election of Donald Trump as US president.

It is expected to trigger international outrage and a flurry of lawsuits against the measure.

"Nobody can legalise the theft of the Palestinian lands. Building settlements is a crime, building settlements is against all international laws," said Palestinian tourism and antiquities minister Rula Maayaa.

"I think it is time now for the international community to act concretely to stop the Israelis from these crimes."

Mr Trump is seen as more sympathetic to Israel's settlement policies than his fiercely critical predecessor Barack Obama, and the Israeli government has approved plans to build thousands of new homes on occupied territory since Mr Trump took office.

Using a biblical name for the West Bank, Israeli cabinet minister Yariv Levin said the law was "a first step in a series of measures that we must take in order to make our presence in Judea and Samaria present for years, for decades, for ages".

"I do believe that our right over our fatherland is something that cannot be denied," he said.

According to the law, Palestinian landowners would be compensated either with money or alternative land, even if they did not agree to give up their property.

Critics say the legislation enshrines into law the theft of Palestinian land, and it is expected to be challenged in Israel's Supreme Court.

The vote passed 60-52 in Israel's 120-member Knesset.

The raucous debate saw opposition politicians shouting from their seats at governing coalition politicians speaking in favour of the vote.

Some spectators in visitors' seats raised a black cloth in apparent protest.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had voiced misgivings about the law in the lead-up to the vote, reportedly expressing concern that it could trigger international censure and saying he wanted to co-ordinate with the Trump administration before moving ahead on a vote.

He told reporters on a trip to London that he had updated Washington and was ready to move ahead with the law.

Mr Netanyahu was on his way back from the trip and was not present for the vote.

The White House's immediate response was to refer to its statement last week that said the construction of new settlements "may not be helpful" in achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The State Department later said "the Trump administration will withhold comment on the legislation until the relevant court ruling".

David Harris, chief executive of AJC, the global Jewish advocacy organisation, said that "Israel's High Court can and should reverse this misguided legislation" ahead of Mr Netanyahu's meeting with Mr Trump in February.

Critics have also warned the bill could drag Israel into a legal battle at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands, which is already pursuing a preliminary examination into settlements.

Among the law's problematic elements is that the West Bank is not sovereign Israeli territory and that Palestinians who live there are not citizens and do not have the right to vote for the government that imposed the law on them.

Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called the law "unacceptable" and urged the international community to act immediately.

"This is an escalation that would only lead to more instability and chaos," he said.

Mr Netanyahu faced intense pressure from within his nationalist coalition, especially from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, to press ahead with the vote following the court-ordered evacuation last week of the illegal Amona outpost found to have been built on private Palestinian land.

More than 40 settler families were forced to leave the 20-year-old outpost, and on Monday construction vehicles demolished and removed the trailer homes that remained behind.

Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, told Israel's Army Radio on Tuesday that the goal of the bill was to create the same conditions in the settlements as in Israel proper.

"At the end of the day, behind all the talk there is a simple question: what do we want for the future of Israel?" he said.

After years of condemnations from the Obama administration over settlement construction, Israel's government has ramped up settlement initiatives since Mr Trump took office, announcing plans for some 6,000 new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and promising to build a new settlement for the Amona evacuees.

Mr Trump has signalled a far more accepting approach to settlements, raising hopes in Mr Netanyahu's government that it will be able to step up construction.

The White House said little as Mr Netanyahu announced plans during Mr Trump's first two weeks in office to build more than 6,000 new settler homes.

But after Mr Netanyahu announced his plan to establish a new settlement for the first time in two decades, Mr Trump indicated that he, too, might have his limits.

"While we don't believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal," the White House said.

The Palestinians want the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip - territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war - for their future state.

Much of the international community views settlements as illegal and an obstacle to reaching peace with the Palestinians.

Shortly before leaving office, Mr Obama allowed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution declaring settlements illegal.

Before the law passed, the UN Middle East envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, called on politicians to vote against the law, saying that "it will have far-reaching legal consequences for Israel and greatly diminish the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace".

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