Fathy Shebana’s family has lived in Sinjil, a rural village between Ramallah and Nablus for as long as any of them can remember. His family, mostly farmers, has land deeds distributed from the Ottoman era, passed down through generations and split up among sons, daughters and cousins, but always kept in the family.
Today, much of that land is gone — annexed by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank for the use of illegal Israeli settlements. Since Israel passed a new law on February 6, dubbed the Regularization Law, Fathy and his community fear for the future of their land and livelihoods.
The law retroactively legalized at least a dozen settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land, and laid the framework for easily legalizing other outposts in the future.
Settlement outposts are Israeli communities in the occupied West Bank built without authorization from the Israeli government’s planning and zoning apparatus, many of which are located near larger settlements recognized by Israel. In many cases, settlement outposts are retroactively declared neighborhoods of already existing settlements, but in the past, before the Regularization Law, legalizing such outposts on private Palestinian land was more difficult, as Palestinians had the right to fight the outposts’ existence on their land in court.
One of the main features of the Regularization Law is a legal mechanism that allows outposts built on private Palestinian land to be legalized under Israeli law, as long as the settlers living in the community can prove the outpost was created “in good faith,” or without the knowledge that the land belonged to Palestinian citizens.
Both Israeli settlements and Israeli settlement outposts are considered illegal under international law.
Peering through binoculars, Fathy pointed out several settlements along the horizon. The binoculars aren’t that necessary, as the settlement blocs on the tops of neighboring hills stand apart from the Palestinian villages in the valley below quite easily. The red shingled roofs of the settlements are devoid of the black water tanks used by Palestinians, and the massive development-styled manner of the illegal settlements stick out from the mismatched style of buildings constructed over many decades in the Palestinian villages.
“With these you can see the details though,” Fathy said, handing over the binoculars. “See there, those caravans below the settlements? That is one of the outposts.”
Sinjil is surrounded by four Israeli settlements — Shiloh, Shvut Rahel, Eli and Ma’ale Levona — four more settlement outposts — South Eli, Eli South (Hill 792), Apiryon Hill and Givat Harel — and several Israeli bypass roads that are built directly on private Palestinian land belonging to residents of Sinjil and other Palestinian villages.
During the interview, Fathy stopped twice to point out groups of four to five large lorries carrying more caravans, or small trailer like homes, toward the settlements.
“I’ve seen at least forty new caravans being pulled through the main insection down there today alone,” Fathy said.
“They’re probably bringing them here from Amona,” Fathy’s cousin, Kamal Shebana interjected with a sardonic smile, referring to a settler outpost that, before the Regularization Law was passed, was forcibly evicted under orders of an Israeli court after Palestinian landowners won their cases.
“That won’t happen again now, after this law,” Kamal, also a farmer, said.
Kamal has been involved in several court cases against the Israeli government and settlers, in attempts to regain the rights to his private land.
“It was like a game,” Kamal said. “We would go to court to challenge where the outposts were being built on our land, or where these roads were being built, and we would win sometimes, but then when they complied, they would just move the outpost from one spot to another spot — but the new spot would be someone else’s land and they would have to take them to court to then get them to move that as well.”
Kamal’s concerns are not unfounded. On the other side of the Shiloh settlement is the outpost of Adi Ad. Israeli announced on Tuesday that the government plans on using the new law to legalize houses in the outpost, according to a Haaretz report.
“At least before we had some kind of tool, the courts, but after this law we won’t have any way to try and get our land back when they take it, now settlers are free to take what they want.”
The international community, human rights organizations and Palestinians have vehemently condemned the law, calling it a serious threat to the two-state solution. The Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has to take the legislation to the Supreme Court to challenge the law. Without such an intervention, Palestinians fear for the worst.
“They will just keep building these outposts, then legalize them, create a new settlement, and keep doing that until places like Sinjil are completely surrounded by Israeli settlements,” Fathy said. “We will be caged in.”
The Shebana’s fear for their land and livelihood, but also the violence that comes with living near an Israeli settlement.
“They built that military base in 2001,” Fathy said pointing off to a base atop a neighboring hill. “It was supposed to be temporary but they kept building and building and now it’s here permanently. It’s here to protect the settlers, not us.”
Fathy said crops and homes are often destroyed and vandalized by settlers living nearby. During any confrontation, the Israeli military always sides with the settlers, he said. Pulling out a small camera, Fathy starts scrolling through photos of the inside of a home. The photos show belongings broken and in disarray in every room of the house.
“These are from that home down there,” he said, pointing to a house positioned far from other homes near one of the settler bypass roads. “The family who owns it lives in America, and the settlers come down every now and again and break inside to vandalise it. The more settlements we have around us, and the closer they are, the more this will happen.”