Home News Israeli officials describe secret government bid to consolidate control over West Bank

Israeli officials describe secret government bid to consolidate control over West Bank


An influential member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has told settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank that the government is secretly working to irreversibly change how the region is governed in order to consolidate Israel’s control over the area without being accused of formally annexing it.

In a recording of the speech, the official said: Bezalel SmotrichEarlier this month, at a private event, he hinted that the goal was to prevent the West Bank from becoming part of a Palestinian state.

“I tell you, this is very dramatic,” Smotrich told the settlers. “Changes like this change the DNA of a system.”

While it is no secret that Smotrich opposes giving up control of the West Bank, the official position of the Israeli government is that the status of the West Bank remains to be negotiated between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that Israel’s rule over the territory amounts to a temporary military occupation overseen by army generals, rather than permanent civilian annexation governed by Israeli civil servants.

Smotrich’s speech at a West Bank rally on June 9 may make this posture more difficult to maintain. In his speech, he outlined A well-planned plan Parts of the plan have already been adopted by the Israeli military to take power in the West Bank away from the Israeli military and hand it over to civilians under Smotrich at the Ministry of Defense. Gradually Introduction Over the past 18 months, some power has been transferred to civilians.

“We have created a separate civilian system,” Smotrich said. To deflect international attention, the government allowed the Defense Ministry to remain involved in the process, he said, so that it would appear that the military remained central to West Bank governance.

“It’s more acceptable from an international and legal perspective,” Mr. Smotrich said. “It makes it less likely that they’re saying we’re annexing this.”

The New York Times reporter listened to a recording of the speech, which lasted about half an hour. The recording was provided by a participant, a researcher at the anti-Occupy movement organization “Peace Now”. The researcher shared the recording of the entire speech. Smotrich’s spokesman Etan Fuld confirmed that Smotrich gave a speech and said the event was not a secret.

Smotrich, a far-right lawmaker, said Netanyahu knew the details of the plan, much of which was foreshadowed in the two-party coalition agreement that allowed the prime minister to remain in power. Smotrich said in his speech that Netanyahu “fully supports us.”

If the government collapses, a future coalition could reverse these changes, but in the past, government initiatives in the West Bank have generally remained the same under successive governments.

For many Palestinians, it may not have been the fact that Smotrich spoke that surprised them, but rather that he said it out loud.

“It was interesting to hear Smotrich himself confirm most of our suspicions about his agenda,” said Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a political analysis group based in Ramallah in the West Bank.

However, Mr. Dalalsha said the approach was not new.

For years, Palestinians have said Israeli leaders are trying to annex areas of the West Bank and build settlements in strategic locations to prevent Palestinians from exercising continuous control over the entire territory. “This has been going on since 1967,” Mr. Dararsha said. “Long before Smotrich came to power,” he added.

Israel seized control of the territory from Jordan in a war with three Arab states in 1967. Since the occupation, Israel has resettled more than 500,000 Israeli civilians, who are governed by Israeli civil law, and about 3 million Palestinians, who are governed by Israeli military law. About 40% of the territory is administered by the Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous body run by Palestinians that relies on Israeli cooperation for much of its funding.

For decades, Israel’s Supreme Court has described Israel’s rule over the territory as a military occupation, overseen by senior generals, in accordance with international law applicable to occupied territories. The current ruling coalition disputes the term “occupation” but also publicly denies that the West Bank has been permanently annexed and placed under the sovereign control of Israeli civilian authorities.

“The final status of these territories will be determined by the parties through direct negotiations,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement responding to Smotrich’s speech, adding: “There has been no change in this policy.”

Mr. Smotrich’s speech suggested the opposite.

He singled out a change in which military officers no longer oversee much of the process of Israeli settlement expansion, land expropriation and West Bank road construction. Those roles, he said, are now overseen by “a civilian in the Ministry of Defense” who does not work for military commanders but for the military. The new board of directors overseen by Mr. Smotrich.

Despite growing international pressure for a Palestinian state covering the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Smotrich’s comments suggest Israel is quietly strengthening its control over the West Bank and making it more difficult to break free from Israeli control.

As diplomats struggle to forge a “grand deal” for the Middle East that would both end Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and improve Israel’s relations with other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia has said it will recognize Israel — but only if Israel allows Palestinian statehood.

Smotrich’s speech suggests that prospect may be remote as he begins to merge the governance of the occupied West Bank with that of the State of Israel.

Smotrich’s speech “fundamentally undermines Israel’s long-standing argument that the settlements are legal because they are temporary,” said Talia Sasson, a former senior official at Israel’s Justice Ministry who led the An influential government survey In 2005, the government began supporting illegal settlements.

The speech made clear just how powerful Israel’s once marginalized settler movement has become.

Mr. Smotrich is a longtime settler activist who has worked outside Israeli authorities to build settlement camps that are considered illegal even under Israeli law. A religious hardliner, he believes the West Bank — which Israelis call by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria — was given to the Jewish people by God.

During his decade as a lawmaker, Smotrich drew attention for his often extremist rhetoric, including his calls for Destroyed a Palestinian town; his support the segregation between Arabs and Jews in the delivery room; and his backing For those Jewish landowners who were unwilling to sell their property to the Arabs.

Smotrich has had growing influence over government policy since late 2022, when his party joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, helping it gain a slim majority in parliament.

Smotrich used this advantage to convince Netanyahu to appoint him to the defense and finance ministries, positions Smotrich used to block funding for the Palestinian Authority.

“My goal — and I think it’s everyone’s goal — is first and foremost to prevent the creation of a terror state in the heart of Israel,” Smotrich said in the recorded speech.

Smotrich said his main achievement was bringing many military responsibilities in the West Bank under civilian control. While the army often turned a blind eye to settlement expansion and even protected unauthorized settlements from Palestinian attacks, soldiers sometimes destroyed settler camps built without government permission and banned Israeli activists from entering the West Bank.

To offset this, the government has taken the following steps, Smotrich said:

  • Strip the top West Bank army commander of his power to block settlement construction plans.

  • Nearly $270 million from Israel’s defense budget will be used to defend the settlements from 2024 to 2025.

In part, Smotrich’s comments appeared aimed at pacifying voters’ criticism of his tenure in office. Settler activists say the military still frequently blocks their construction. New settlementsand Mr. Smotrich did not intervene sufficiently.

“Fifteen years ago, I was one of those guys running around in the mountains setting up tents,” Smotrich told the settlers in his speech. Now, he said, his work behind the scenes will have a greater impact than building any one settlement camp.

Johnson Rice Reporting from Tel Aviv Adam Rasgon From Jerusalem.

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