The Israeli parliament on Wednesday voted in favor of a disputed bill on legalizing some 4,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank, in the first of three readings despite international criticism and warnings over its implications.
Fifty-seven members of the parliament, or Knesset, voted to approve the draft legislation submitted by the party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while 51 were against it. It will require two more votes, probably next week, to become law.
Some 400,000 Israeli settlers currently live in the West Bank, excluding annexed east Jerusalem, along with 2.6 million Palestinians. All Israeli settlements are viewed as illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.
Critics in Israel and abroad fear that Netanyahu's machinations aimed at appeasing political partners could have grave consequences internationally, even if the law does not survive likely court challenges.
Preliminary approval for the bill granted by parliament on Monday has alarmed the United States, European Union and United Nations, raising the possibility of some sort of U.N. resolution before President Barack Obama's term is up in January.
Israeli officials are also concerned that the bill could provide grounds for prosecution by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It prompted particularly strong criticism from Germany.
Netanyahu himself cited possible court action when he initially opposed the legislation promoted by the far-right Jewish Home party and its leader, Naftali Bennett. Palestinians condemned the bill as a land grab in territory they seek for a state.
The legislation could ultimately be overturned by Israel's Supreme Court, where human rights groups are widely expected to challenge the effective expropriation of privately owned land.
In the five decades since Israel captured the West Bank, it has built about 120 formal settlements on the territory. Most of the world deems them illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. As well as those settlements, which Israel fully supports, settlers have established more than 100 outposts, many on hilltops across the West Bank, often with tacit government support. Under the new bill, 55 of the outposts will have official sanction, according to Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now. Compensation would be offered to Palestinian land owners.
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