Defense Chief Bennett Announces Task Force to Strengthen Israeli Settlement Activity

Plans put forth would legalize unauthorized outposts and allow individual Israelis to buy land in the West Bank, in a series of controversial proposals that legal sources say are effectively equivalent to annexation

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at a Kohelet Forum conference on West Bank settlements in Jerusalem, January 8, 2020.
Emil Salman

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced Wednesday that he had established a task force to develop plans for the future of Area C of the West Bank and then advocate on behalf of the plans.

Legal sources familiar with Bennett's plan said it may present some legal difficulties, as some of the proposed moves are effectively equivalent to annexing parts of the West Bank.

Bennett is a leader of the Hayamin Hehadash party, which has supported expanded settlement activity.  

“We are launching a campaign for the future of Area C; it started a month ago and I’m announcing it here today,” Bennett told a conference of the Kohelet Forum, a nationalist and economically conservative lobby. “The State of Israel’s policy is that the land in Area C belongs to [Israel].”

All of the settlements are in Area C, which comprises the 60 percent of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control, unlike other areas of the territory, where the Palestinian Authority exercises at least partial control. 

Over the past few weeks, leading settlement activists have been invited to a series of meetings with Bennett’s chief of staff, Itay Hershkowitz, where they raised a number of issues they believe could be advanced in the coming months, despite the limitations imposed on the current caretaker government, which will remain in office at least until the March 2 Knesset election.

The matters selected by Hershkowitz and the settlers include those that up to now have been seen as explosive. They include allowing Jews to privately buy land in the West Bank and hooking up unauthorized settlement outposts, including isolated ones, to water and electricity.

The settlers are also seeking to have unauthorized outposts near established settlements recognized as neighborhoods of the settlements.

Hershkowitz had directed the work of the forum, but on Thursday Bennett announced that Koby Eliraz, who was dismissed as the defense minister’s aide on settlement issues last June, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was also serving as defense minister, was appointed as the forum's director. Settler leaders were lobbying for his appointment.

Some sources have said Eliraz had made several demands before accepting the nomiation, one of which is to appoint external legal advisers to work with the heads of some of the units at Israel's Civil Administration in the West Bank, including land registration, infrastructure, transportation, water, archaeology and agriculture. 

One of the main items on the list of settler demands is the cancellation of the need for transaction permits that have limited the purchase of West Bank land by Jews. The change would permit Jews to buy land in the West Bank as individuals.

Current law in the territory only allows individual Jordanians, Palestinians and “foreigners of Arab origin” to buy land there. Israeli Jews can only buy through corporations and only with the approval of the head of the Civil Administration. 

There would also be an effort to look into repealing a military order that allows the head of the Civil Administration to evict settlers who are using privately owned Palestinian land even if the landowner hasn’t filed a complaint over the use. This issue has been heard by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the current policy is vital to maintaining order in the West Bank.

For years the settlers have also been claiming that many unauthorized outposts are actually neighborhoods of adjacent settlements. There are dozens of such outposts. The forum plans to find a way to change the legal definition of “neighborhood” so that the outposts can fall within the jurisdiction of the nearby settlement and benefit from the jurisdiction of the settlement over the outpost.

There is also an effort to legalize some 30 sheep farms in the West Bank that were established without authorization and are subject to pending demolition orders. Senior settlement sources say that they are projects that help both farmers and teens at risk, but defense officials argue that it is a way to establish additional unauthorized outposts because the farms attract young people who stay on the premises.