By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's parliament gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to a disputed bill that would retroactively legalize Jewish ettlement outposts built on privately-owned Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.
The United States has described the measure, promoted by far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition, as "troubling" and said it could pave the way for the legalization of dozens of outposts, built deep in the West Bank without Israeli government authorization.
Outposts usually start with pre-fabricated huts on remote hilltops and lived in by a handful of settlers. Over time, they acquire Israeli military protection and hook up to water and electricity networks, slowly becoming more formalized, despite being regarded as illegal.
The far-right Jewish Home party and members of Netanyahu's Likud faction have pushed for the law, in part to try to circumvent a Supreme Court order to destroy the settlement outpost of Amona, where 40 families live on Palestinian-owned land. The demolition is set for Dec. 25.
"To those of you who still don't understand: The bill basically gives the go-head for annexing the territories. Welcome to the bi-national state," Tzipi Livni, a leader of the center-left Zionist Union and a former foreign minister, tweeted after the vote was approved by 58-50.
Israel's attorney-general has said the proposed legislation likely violates international law and he would be hard-pressed to defend it against any challenges in the Supreme Court.
Palestinians denounced the proposed law as another blow to their goal of establishing a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Peace talks on statehood collapsed in 2014, with Israeli settlement-building cited by Palestinians as a major obstacle to a final deal.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization said the bill was "a legal travesty" and a violation of international law:
"The illegal Israeli occupation can steal ... Palestinian land, whether in public Palestinian use or private Palestinian property, in order to expand its settlement project, destroy the two-state solution and at the same time impose greater Israel on historical Palestine."
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of Jewish Home told parliament just before it voted 58-50 in favor of the bill that the Supreme court could "re-examine its moves" once parliament "changes the rules of the game".
The legislation offers monetary compensation or alternative plots to Palestinians who own land on which settlers have built homes without a formal state go-ahead. There are some 100 unauthorized settlement-outposts in the West Bank, where more than 350,000 Israelis live in other settlements built with government permission.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home, said this week that the legislation, if approved, would legalize 2,000-3,000 outpost housing units, lived in by around 15,000 people.
Most countries view all Israeli settlements on occupied land as illegal.
Netanyahu had sought to delay the legislation, apparently wary it may draw further U.S. censure and perhaps raise the chances of Barack Obama backing a United Nations resolution against settlements in the final days of his presidency.
But a ministerial committee defied Netanyahu on Sunday by voting to send the bill to parliament, where the atmosphere on Wednesday was raucous among the right. The legislation will now go to committee and must pass several more votes to become law.
Preliminary passage of the bill was accompanied by promises from senior officials of Likud and the center-right Kulanu party in the coalition that it would not advance through the next stages in parliament if the Supreme Court's standing was harmed.
But in a sign of possible coalition troubles ahead, Jewish Home leaders vowed to press on, with opposition politicians saying damage had already been done to a judicial body that many Israelis see as a guardian of human rights in a country without a formal constitution.
(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Luke Baker and Tom Heneghan)