ASA’EL, West Bank (AP) — Focusing on its controversial judicial reform, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has quietly taken unprecedented steps toward strengthening Israel’s control over the West Bank — perhaps permanently.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the settlement movement, assumed new powers over the occupied territories in his coalition agreement with Netanyahu. Smotrich moved quickly to approve thousands of new settlement homes, legalize previously unauthorized wildcat outposts, and make it more difficult for Palestinians to build homes and move around.
As the first government minister to oversee civilian life in the West Bank, observers say his role amounts to a recognition that Israel’s 56-year military occupation is not temporary but permanent.
“If Smotrich remains in office for four years we will be in a situation of no return,” said Ilan Paz, former head of Israel’s Civil Administration, the military body that oversees civilian affairs in the West Bank.
Hoping to return to power while facing a corruption trial, Netanyahu last year offered sweeping concessions to pro-colonial lawmakers like Smotrich to form his governing coalition. The coalition agreement created a new Israeli settler agency, led by Smotrich, within the Defense Ministry to manage Jewish and Palestinian construction in the 60% of the West Bank that Israel controls.
Human rights lawyer Michael Sfard said, “This is a kind of revolution, in which powers are being transferred from an army with its legal obligation to consider the well-being of the occupied people, to one that is committed only to Israeli interests.”
Smotrich has said that he wants to double the settler population, build roads and neighborhoods and erase any remaining gap between the lives of Israelis in the West Bank and within Israel. Along the way, he hopes to destroy any Palestinian hopes of independence.
As finance minister, Smotrich could channel taxpayer money into West Bank infrastructure projects. Israel’s 2024 budget earmarks an all-time high of $960 million for a highway network better connecting Israel to the West Bank – a quarter of all transportation ministry funds. Settlers here make up just over 5% of Israel’s population.
Smotrich and his supporters see the West Bank as the biblical homeland of the Jewish people and envision a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea in which Palestinians can live or leave quietly with second-class status.
“We felt like the state never prioritized us because of where we lived. Smotrich is changing that,” said Smotrich spokesman Eitan Fuld.
While Smotrich’s new settler agency now handles the territory’s land-use issues, COGAT, the military body that oversees civilian administration, retains specific responsibilities over the more than 2 million Palestinians. Rights groups and others have compared division along ethnic lines to “apartheid”.
About half a million residents live in the West Bank, which Israel captured along with East Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war. The international community largely considers the settlements illegal.
Experts and officials say Smotrich’s policies have already increased Palestinian suffering, emboldened violent settlers and created turmoil within the Israeli military establishment. The recent settlement expansion has also strained the Netanyahu government’s relations with the White House.
Smotrich declined interview requests.
Gadi Shamni, a former West Bank military commander, said, “Smotrich took over the civilian administration, which was the only tool Israel had to calm things down.” “The West Bank will explode.”
UN figures show monthly settler attacks have increased by more than 30% this year compared to 2022. Anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now said the government had approved 13,000 settlement housing units and legalized 20 outposts built without authorization, the highest level since the group began counting in 2012.
Under Smotrich, Israeli authorities have pressed for the demolition of Palestinian construction built without permits. COGAT admitted in July that it rejects more than 95% of Palestinian permit requests.
According to the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, this year’s incidence of demolitions is slightly higher than last year, which saw the most demolitions since at least 2006.
Israeli authorities, meanwhile, have scaled back efforts to clear unauthorized Jewish settlements, settlers say.
“This is the best government we have ever had,” said Shulamit Ben Yashar, 32, from the hamlet of Assael in the arid hills south of Hebron. The outpost – home to 90 families, including Smotrich’s brother Tuvia – received legal approval on 6 September.
Renovation fever was at its peak at the Assail playground as mothers loudly discussed their plans to exchange dilapidated caravans and wheezing generators for concrete and Israel’s national electricity grid.
Their Palestinian neighbors – herders on the dusty slopes, known as Masafar Yatta – face evictions by Israeli authorities and increased attacks by settlers. Residents of the rural area, which Israeli forces plan to seize, say Smotrich and his allies are robbing them of the life of their communities.
“We can barely breathe,” said Samir Hammadeh, 38, whose two camels were killed last month after tripping over trip wires he said were planted by settlers. Residents say the settlers The provocations – damaging Palestinian cars and injuring animals – reflect the sense of impunity cultivated by the government.
Smotrich and his colleagues also vowed to speed up the pace of settlement construction. In July, the government reduced the six stages of approval required for settlement advancement to two: smotrich and a planning committee.
“This makes it possible to build more,” said Zvi Yedidia Sukkot, a lawmaker from Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party.
The party has proposed to allocate $180 million to renovate settlement housing and build new hospitals and schools. Authorities are building two new multimillion-dollar bypass roads to transport Israeli residents around Palestinian cities.
One of the roads goes around Hawara, a flashpoint town where residents burned dozens of homes and cars after the fatal shooting of two people earlier this year. At the time, Smotrich said that the city should be “erased”.
“Our government has finally understood that withdrawal from the land is a reward for terror,” said Rabbi Menachem Ben Shachar, a teacher at a newly built yeshiva seminary in Homesh, one of four outposts that Israel evacuated in 2005. Had given.
Lawmakers this year repealed a law that had barred settlers from visiting the site. More than 50 students were praying in the yeshiva during a recent visit.
Such decisions have destabilized the Israeli defense establishment. Settlers said that in May Israeli forces tried to prevent them from moving heavy construction equipment to build a new yeshiva. But when Smotrich applied pressure, the government suddenly ordered troops to allow the settlers to build.
“The political sector ordered the military sector not to follow the law,” said Nitzan Allon, a retired general who once commanded the West Bank region.
The army and COGAT declined to comment on that incident. But a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said Smotrich’s intervention had halted several planned demolitions at unauthorized checkpoints.
Last month, the tug-of-war between Smotrich veterans and security-minded military personnel came out into the open when Israeli officials were filmed pumping cement into wells south of Hebron, permanently sealing off Palestinian water sources in the summer heat. It has been done. Palestinians had dug wells without permits, which Israel rarely grants.
The footage spread on social media and caught COGAT by surprise, the security official said. The agency promised that any future demolitions of water cisterns “will be examined on their merits.”
Paz, the former general, said Smotrich’s men were “crossing all limits”. “They don’t care.”