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General view of houses of the Israeli settlement of Efrat, in the occupied West Bank. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

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By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Rights groups petitioned Israel's Supreme Court on Wednesday to annul a heavily criticised law that retroactively legalised some 4,000 settler homes built on privately owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

The law, approved by parliament on Monday, has drawn condemnation from Europe and the United Nations and has been described by Israel's attorney general as unconstitutional.

Acting on behalf of 17 Palestinian villages and towns, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah), and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center also asked the court for an injunction in order to stop any registration of the plots as under settler ownership.

The Supreme Court has in the past supported Palestinian property rights and annulled laws it deemed unconstitutional.

The legal process in some of those cases took months, though the court usually rules on injunction requests within days.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the law an aggression against the Palestinian people and threatened to suspend security cooperation with Israel if its ramp-up of Israeli settlements continued.

On Tuesday Federica Mogherini, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said that if implemented, the measure would cross a new and dangerous threshold.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the action went against international law, while French President Francois Hollande said it paved the way for the annexation of territory Palestinians want as part of a future state.

The administration of new U.S. President Donald Trump has so far signalled a softer approach toward Israeli settlement policy. Trump will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington on Feb 15.

Most countries consider Israeli settlements built on land captured in the 1967 Middle East War as illegal and obstacles to peace.

Some 550,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, which was also seized by Israel in 1967, among 2.6 million Palestinians who want those territories for a future state.

In January, Israel announced it would build about 6,000 new homes in the two areas, to which it cites biblical, historical and political connections.

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and John Stonestreet)

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