Israel’s parliament has repealed legislation that ordered the dismantling of four Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move that critics denounced as a step towards the creeping annexation of the territory.
The decision in the early hours of Tuesday fulfils a long-held goal of far-right lawmakers who dominate Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline new government. Supporters view the reversal as a potential route to re-establishing the settlements, which most of the international community considers illegal.
The repeal comes at a turbulent moment in Israeli politics, with the government facing mass protests over a contentious plan to weaken the judiciary and rising violence in the West Bank.
The four settlements — Homesh, Sa-Nur, Ganim and Kadim — were dismantled at the same time as Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, provoking fury from settler organisations.
Settler leaders hailed the vote as a “historic” moment. However, opposition MPs and NGOs supporting Palestinian rights blasted the decision as a prelude to annexing the West Bank, which ultranationalist members of Netanyahu’s coalition have long sought to do.
“[This is] a pre-annexation law. 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,” said Gilad Kariv, from the opposition Labor party.
The decision is the latest in a series of initiatives by the government — which took office in December with ultranationalist settlers such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir holding important positions — 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 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, Israel’s then prime minister Ariel Sharon said that Israel would unilaterally 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 the repeal of the law was a “blatant violation of international law and another step in the annexation process led by the Israel government”.