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Civilian, not military, rule in West Bank

JERUSALEM — Last month, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was granted authority over the civilian life of Israeli residents, and some Palestinians, in the West Bank.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich holds a press conference about the state budget in Jerusalem, Feb. 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Does that mean Smotrich is about to annex the settlements to Israel?

No. The agreement explicitly counts out annexation, and Smotrich was at pains in December to assure Americans, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, that annexation was not happening in the immediate future.
Smotrich is now in charge of life in Area C of the West Bank, which makes up the bulk of the territory.
All of the Israeli settlements are in Area C, where Israel has full control over civilian affairs.

The Palestinian Authority governs civilian life in Areas A and B, which comprise 40% of the West Bank and include the majority of the territories’ Palestinians.

Michael Sfard, a critic of Smotrich and a Israeli human rights lawyer, wrote:

“Transferring powers to Israeli civilian hands is an act of de jure annexation because it entails removing power from the occupying military and placing it directly in the hands of the government — this is an expression of sovereignty.”

Who’s in charge of Israel’s West Bank policy?

The particulars of the new arrangement in the West Bank, according to the deal signed last week, are complex and a bit confusing.

Smotrich is responsible for land use by Israelis and Palestinians in Area C, but it’s not clear whether he has authority over Palestinian freedom of movement into and out of the area.

His full responsibilities are listed in annexes not made public.

The military, meanwhile, retains the authority to evacuate illegally built settlement outposts.

That means it’s not clear who’s on top, except for a provision that makes Netanyahu the arbiter of any disputes between Smotrich and Israel Defense Minister Yoav Galant, or Smotrich and the military.

The agreement pledges to erase divisions between Israel and the Jewish settlements.

It says Smotrich will launch an initiative called “Equality of Citizenship” that will “improve and streamline services in Judea and Samaria” through Israeli government ministries — that is, not via the military that has been in charge of such matters for more than half a century.

Who is Bezalel Smotrich and his political party?

Smotrich, 43, is head of the Religious Zionism party, which won 14 seats and became the Knesset’s third-largest party.

The coalition agreement the party signed in December with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netan-yahu pledged to give Smotrich authority over civilian life in the settlements.

This was the province of Defense Minister Galant, and he and Smotrich clashed over the past couple of months.

Smotrich made clear he was impatient to assume the new role, and was worried Netanyahu was balking.

“Defense minister Galant’s disavowal of the unequivocal agreement, and the prime minister’s foot-dragging on the matter are unacceptable and will not be allowed to continue,” he wrote on Twitter on Feb. 15.

Netanyahu fulfilled the coalition agreement on March 2, and in a deal signed by Netanyahu, Smotrich and Galant, Smotrich was handed authority over day-to-day affairs in the settlements.

He tweeted that the deal entailed “a holiday for the residents of Judea and Samaria,” the Biblical term for the West Bank.

Both Smotrich and his ideological foes are portraying his new job as the harbinger of a sea change in the territory — one that will expand the settlements.

“The transfer of civilian authority over the settlements to us, and the beginning of the process of normalizing settlements, are also a great and strategic achievement,” he wrote in the Facebook post on Feb. 28.

“Even if it takes time to ripen and change the rudder of the ship, it will lead, G-d willing, to a dramatic change.”

What did Smotrich say about the Jewish rioting in the West Bank following two terrorists murders Feb. 26?

After a Palestinian gunman shot and killed two Israelis in the village of Huwara on Feb. 26, a mob of settlers rampaged in the village, burning cars and buildings and injuring residents.

In the days following, at least publicly, Smotrich has appeared conflicted over his response to the riots.

He liked a tweet calling to “wipe out” the village, then issued his own tweet addressed to his “settler brothers” decrying the rampaging.

Then he shared a third set of tweets that endorsed collective punishment — but not through mob violence — and compared the riot to Tel Aviv protesters “day of disruption,” in which demonstrations blocked roads across the country, including a central highway in Tel Aviv.

Later last week, on Feb. 28, Smotrich published a Facebook post in which he called the rioters “a small group whose patience ran out and who acted inappropriately.” Part of him, he wrote, wanted “to identify with the pain and the anger and the feeling that it’s impossible to sit quietly any longer.”

On March 1, a journalist asked him to explain why he liked the tweet calling for the village to be “wiped out.”

“Because I think the village of Huwara should be wiped out, I think that the state of Israel should do it.” A few hours later, he again walked back his statement:

“To remove any doubt, in my words I did not mean wiping out the village of Huwara, but rather acting in a targeted way against terrorists and supporters of terror, and exacting a heavy price from them in order to return security to local residents.”

How is the US responding?

The Biden administration, which has otherwise maintained friendly engagement with Netanyahu’s new government, had reportedly pressured him to renege on the new job for Smotrich.

Biden officials found an ally on that issue in Israel’s defense establishment, which also was loath to hand over any degree of control to Smotrich, Axios reported.

Criticism also came from Israel’s opposition. Benny Gantz, a former defense minister and IDF chief of staff, tweeted out a confusing flow chart of the new division of responsibilities between Smotrich and Galant.

“This doesn’t look like a chain of command,” he wrote. “This looks like a labyrinth that endangers Israel’s security.”

What’s next?

Smotrich has said he plans to accelerate the building of Jewish settlements and limit building by Palestinians in Area C, who build there illegally.

He said, “We will act with determination to stop the illegal Arab takeover of open lands in Judea and Samaria.”

Israel Bonds is set to host Smotrich at an upcoming conference.

Hundreds of rabbis have said they will not welcome Smotrich into their synagogues.

Smotrich will address the Washington, DC leadership meeting of the Development Corporation for Israel-State of Israel Bonds, which takes place from March 12-14.

A spokeswoman for the group said the leadership meeting will be closed to press.

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