New Legal Powers for Settlers Facilitate West Bank Annexation

Tel Aviv’s finance chief Smotrich favors ethnic cleansing and annexation of the West Bank as well as Gaza

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) quietly issued an order which transfers substantial legal powers over the occupied West Bank to Settlements Administration bureaucrats working under Israel’s extremist minister Bezalel Smotrich, The Guardian reports. This paves the way for annexation of the territory, illegally occupied since 1967, where millions of Palestinian Muslims and Christians live. This objective, which will eliminate the potential for a two-state solution, has been long sought by Smotrich and other far-right elements in Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

Posted on the IDF’s website on May 29, the new order shifts responsibility for dozens of bylaws at the West Bank’s Civil Administration from the IDF to civilians working for Smotrich at the Defense Ministry, facilitating the expansion of Jewish-only colonies.

Critically, Finance Minister Smotrich also holds a position in the Defense Ministry in which he serves as de facto governor of the occupied territory, allowing him to expropriate land and expand settlement construction. He and his ultra-Orthodox settler allies aim to achieve command of the heretofore IDF-run Civil Administration, or large parts of it, as a means of gaining Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank.

Since Smotrich took his position leading the Settlements Administration last February, Israel has set records for illegal settlement construction. As Al Jazeera notes, “responsibility for monitoring illegal construction in the occupied West Bank came under Smotrich. Meaning that illegal settlement or outpost construction would be ignored and eventually approved, while Palestinian construction would be subject to intense scrutiny over permits, and often demolished.”

Smotrich – himself a resident of the West Bank settlement of Kedumim – has thus far green-lit the legalization of previously unauthorized outposts, approved the building of thousands of new illegal settlement homes, and further impeded the ability of Palestinians to travel or build their own homes.

The Civil Administration mainly oversees planning and construction in Area C of the West Bank, which comprises 60% of the territory and is under full Israeli security and administrative control. This transfer of powers will cover the management of, among other things, building regulations, administration of agriculture, bathing locations, parks, and forestry. Last year, Smotrich vowed he would seek authority to demolish Palestinian residences in Areas A and B, where the Palestinian Authority maintains civil control, using a national security pretext.

According to The Guardian, Smotrich and his allies ultimately desire “direct control by [the] central government and its ministries. The transfer reduces the likelihood of legal checks on settlement expansion and development.”

Last month, as the IDF and settlers escalated their attacks on Palestinians living in the territory, Smotrich threatened Palestinians in the West Bank that they could be subjected to the kinds of mass slaughter ongoing in the besieged Gaza Strip.

“We will turn you into ruins like in the Gaza Strip,” he boasted. Since the war began, more than 550 Palestinians – including at least 137 children – have been killed in the West Bank by settlers and the IDF. Smotrich supports ethnically cleansing, annexing, and re-settling the Gaza Strip as well.

Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard explains “The bottom line is that [for] anyone who thought the question of annexation was foggy, this order should end any doubts. What this order does is transfers vast areas of administrative power from the military commander to Israeli civilians working for the government.”

In April, Smotrich appointed Hillel Roth as a deputy in the Civil Administration focusing on regulations for illegal settlements and outposts. Roth worked as an official with an NGO tied to Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism party and is a former resident of Yitzhar, an infamously violent and radical settlement.

Since former general Benny Gantz quit Netanyahu’s now-disbanded war cabinet over disagreements regarding Gaza, the prime minister has become ever more reliant on the extremist, pro-settler factions within his fragile ruling coalition. Sfard clarified that while the head of the Civil Administration reports to the military command, Roth only answers to Smotrich himself.

Three Israeli jurists concluded last year that such a transfer of power may amount to legal annexation. As Mairav Zonszein, senior analyst for Israel-Palestine at Crisis Group, clarifies: “The big story is that this is no longer ‘creeping annexation’ or ‘de facto annexation’, it is actual annexation. This is the legalization [and] normalization of a long term policy. Smotrich is basically reestablishing the way in which the occupation works by taking a large part out of the hands of the military.”

Earlier this month, Smotrich gave a speech in the West Bank outlining his strategy to “first and foremost prevent the establishment of a terror state in the very heart of the land of Israel.” He declared these moves would be “mega-dramatic,” and of the kind that “change a system’s DNA.”

The finance head acknowledged the need to circumvent international criticism. Therefore, the Defense Ministry will still ostensibly be involved in the process, he said. However, Smotrich added, “we created a separate civilian system.. So that they won’t say that we are doing annexation here.” He also made clear, Netanyahu is “with us full-on.”

Connor Freeman is the assistant editor and a writer at the Libertarian Institute, primarily covering foreign policy. He is a co-host on the Conflicts of Interest podcast. His writing has been featured in media outlets such as, Counterpunch, and the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. He has also appeared on Liberty Weekly, Around the Empire, and Parallax Views. You can follow him on Twitter @FreemansMind96.