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More from Middle East
The explosive law, approved by lawmakers 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 U.S. president. It is expected to trigger international outrage and a flurry of lawsuits against the measure.
"Nobody can legalize 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."
Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. A Palestinian Cabinet minister on Tuesday called on the international community to punish Israel for a contentious new law, just hours after the Israeli parliament adopted the bill to retroactively legalize thousands of West Bank settlement homes built unlawfully on private Palestinian land.(AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
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 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 lawmakers shouting from their seats at governing coalition lawmakers speaking in favor 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 coordinate 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. 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, CEO of AJC, the global Jewish advocacy organization, said that "Israel's High Court can and should reverse this misguided legislation" ahead of Netanyahu's meeting with 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.
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. Over 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 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 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.
Trump has signaled a far more accepting approach to settlements, raising hopes in Netanyahu's government that it will be able to step up construction. The White House said little as Netanyahu announced plans during Trump's first two weeks in office to build over 6,000 new settler homes. But after Netanyahu announced his plan to establish a new settlement for the first time in two decades, 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 Mideast 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, Obama allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution declaring settlements illegal.
Before the law passed, the U.N. Mideast envoy, Nickolay Mladenov, called on lawmakers 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."
Associated Press writers Bradley Klapper in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Sheep graze near Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. A Palestinian Cabinet minister on Tuesday called on the international community to punish Israel for a contentious new law, just hours after the Israeli parliament adopted the bill to retroactively legalize thousands of West Bank settlement homes built unlawfully on private Palestinian land.(AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017, file photo, heavy machinery work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Ariel. Israel¿s prime minister is moving ahead with a contentious law that would legalize dozens of settlement outposts in the West Bank, despite questions about the bill¿s legality and a warning from the White House that settlement construction ¿may not be helpful.¿ (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)
A Palestinian laborer works at a construction site in a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in a new housing project in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Sheep graze near the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017. A Palestinian Cabinet minister on Tuesday called on the international community to punish Israel for a contentious new law, just hours after the Israeli parliament adopted the bill to retroactively legalize thousands of West Bank settlement homes built unlawfully on private Palestinian land.(AP Photo/Oded Balilty)