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JERUSALEM – When Israelis go to the polls next month, tens of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank will also be casting votes, even though they do not live on what is sovereign Israeli territory.
This exception in a country that doesn't allow absentee voting for citizens living abroad is a telling reflection of Israel's somewhat ambiguous and highly contentious claim to the territory, which has been under military occupation for almost a half century.
Over the years, Israel has cultivated a separate legal system there. The Palestinians are ultimately governed by Israeli military rule — while Israel's own criminal and civilian laws apply to more than 350,000 Jewish settlers in a way they cannot apply to Israeli expats.
The settlers' voting rights stem from Israel's 1969 election law that stipulates "there will only be voting on Israeli land," with exceptions made for diplomats and soldiers serving on naval vessels. The law was amended the following year — when the settlement movement was in its infancy — to allow voting by Israelis "whose address is listed in the population registry located in territory held by the Israel Defense Forces."
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and began settling the territory soon after — first halfheartedly, then in greater waves, especially after the nationalist Likud first came to power in 1977. The Palestinians, backed by most of the international community, claim the area as part of a future independent state, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Israel has annexed east Jerusalem and pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza, a tiny coastal strip with 2 million Palestinians now ruled by Hamas militants. The West Bank is a more complex issue, full of Biblical history and strategic significance.
Israel never annexed the West Bank, both due to intense international opposition and the demographic complications of incorporating its more than 2 million Palestinians into Israel. Annexation would have meant giving the Palestinians in the West Bank citizenship and the right to vote in Israeli elections, threatening Israel's Jewish majority. Israel proper today has some six million Jews and almost two million Israeli Arab citizens.
However, Israeli leaders have said they want to keep at least parts of the territory under a final peace deal with the Palestinians. And they have filled much of the area with Jewish communities — which does not normally occur in an area that is merely militarily occupied.
The settlers' right to vote is considered a given by most Israelis, including many who oppose the settlement project. They also enlist for compulsory military service and pay taxes and even speeding tickets to Israeli authorities. Settlers can also serve in Israel's parliament and hold office: Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and Housing Minister Uri Ariel are examples.
The settlers are an organized and formidable electoral force. The hard-line Jewish Home party, aligned with the Jewish settler movement, is expected to emerge as one of the largest parties in parliament. Settlers are also a major factor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party.
"The moment settlements were established in the West Bank, the Interior Ministry set up ballot boxes almost automatically. There was no real question of whether they live in disputed territories or not," said Maoz Rosenthal, a professor of government and public policy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a college north of Tel Aviv.
The settlers are often seen as patriotic for their efforts in settling the biblical Land of Israel.
When Israel cannot depend on parliament to enforce laws on the settlers, it relies on military decrees. And when loopholes emerge, the Supreme Court steps in.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, are subject to Israeli military laws. They can only vote in elections held by the Palestinian Authority, which has limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank. Challenged by the Islamic Hamas movement, the PA has kept postponing elections for years.
The Palestinians in annexed east Jerusalem are entitled to vote, although many Arabs there do not in a sign of protest.
Critics say the arrangement, having gone on so long, contradicts Israel's view of itself as a democracy.
The Palestinians "have no way of voting and electing those people who are making decisions about their future," said Sarit Michaeli, from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem.
The Palestinians and practically the entire international community view the settlements as illegal. Riad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said "anything" settlers do in the territory is illegal, including voting, and their right to vote "proves the whole process is illegitimate."
Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Paul Hirschson, said that since Israel is the "legal authority" in the West Bank, it cannot subject its citizens living there to any other laws but its own.
Alan Baker, a former legal adviser at the Foreign Ministry, argued that since West Bank settlers "live there legitimately," they can vote even though the territory has not been annexed.
The Israeli situation appears to be unique, though other military occupations have forged their own particular arrangements.
In northern Cyprus, which Turkey occupied in 1974, only dual nationals — mainland Turks who settled there and hold both citizenships — can vote in Turkish elections, whereas Turkish Cypriots cannot.
In the disputed territories of the Western Sahara, annexed by Morocco in 1975, all residents, whether original inhabitants or the hundreds of thousands of settlers brought in by the government, have the right to vote In Moroccan elections.
Dani Dayan, a leader of the Yesha settlers' council, offered a view that critics of the occupation might agree with: that the Jewish settlers' voting rights indicate that fundamentally, Israel has no intention of relinquishing the West Bank.
"Israel doesn't see Judea and Samaria as occupied territories," said Dayan, referring to the West Bank by its biblical name.