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 / Updated  / Source: NBC News
By Paul Goldman, Lawahez Jabari and Petra Cahill

TEL AVIV, Israel — Reaction to a controversial new Israeli law legalizing thousands of homes on Palestinian land came swiftly.

"We thank the American people for voting Trump into office, which was what gave us the opportunity for the bill to pass,” said Bezalel Smotrich, a member of Israel’s Knesset for the Jewish Home party, shortly after the vote late Monday.

Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Defense, Eli Ben-Dahan, and other Israeli lawmakers gesture as they attend a vote on a bill at the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday.Ammar Awad / Reuters

Jewish Home is a right-wing religious Zionist political party that supports the expansion of settlements.

The Israeli Parliament voted to retroactively legalize thousands of homes built unlawfully in the West Bank — on land that Palestinians envision one day will form part of a separate state.

The law is the latest in a series of pro-settler steps taken by Israel's hard-line government since Trump’s election. While the White House cautioned Israel against passing Monday's law, many right-wing Israeli politicians have felt emboldened by the Trump presidency.

Critics say the legislation enshrines into law the theft of Palestinian land, and it is expected to be challenged in Israel's Supreme Court, where the attorney general has said he will not argue to defend it.

The U.N.'s coordinator for the Middle East peace process said the legislation "opens the floodgates to the potential annexation of the West Bank."

"It will have a drastic legal consequence for Israel and for the nature of its democracy," said Nickolay Mladenov. "It crosses a very, very thick red line."

A Palestinian Cabinet minister on Tuesday called on the international community to punish Israel for the contentious new law.

"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."

A laborer works at a construction site at the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Tuesday.Ammar Awad / Reuters

The Palestinian Authority spokesperson Nabil Abu Rdeneh called the new law “unacceptable” and also called on the international community to act immediately.

But for all the Palestinian outrage, many right-wing Israeli politicians praised the new bill as a step towards enlarging the Jewish homeland. Miri Regev, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Knesset, tweeted: “Tonight we took a historic step. The first step on the way of a full regulation that will mean the implementation of Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.”

Judea and Samaria are the Biblical names for the West Bank and that the Israeli government considers Jewish by right.

Why are settlements so contentious?

About 600,000 Jewish settlers live in about 140 settlements built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured in the Six-Day War of 1967.

  • Much of the international community, including the United Nations and the European Union, consider the settlements to be an illegal taking of land envisioned as a future homeland for Palestinians.
  • For more than two decades, U.S. foreign policy has been pushing for a negotiated peace deal —a "two-state solution" — that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

According to the law passed Monday, Palestinian landowners would be compensated either with money or alternative land, even if they did not agree to give up their property.

“It is common knowledge among lawyers here that this bill not only violates international law, but also Israeli constitution law because it infringes on private property in ways that are not justifiable,” said Prof. Yuval Shany, a specialist in Public International Law, Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to President Donald Trump during their meeting in New York on Sept. 25, 2016.Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office / Reuters

The White House's immediate response on Monday 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."

For many Palestinians, the new law was just the latest move that could spell the end of their hopes for their own state.

The U.K.’s minister for the Middle East Tobias Ellwood condemned the new bill in a statement Tuesday. “It is of great concern that the bill paves the way for significant growth in settlements deep in the West Bank, threatening the viability of the two-state solution,” Ellwood’s statement said.

The Associated Press contributed.