Expanding Settlements and Legalizing Outposts: Israeli Far-right's Plans for the West Bank

Netanyahu's Likud has agreed to the far-right lawmaker's demand to head the Civil Administration, the military agency that has broad powers in the West Bank, including home demolitions

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Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset, this year.
Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset, this year.Credit: Noam Moskowitz / Knesset

One of Bezalel Smotrich’s demands in the ongoing talks to form a government is to be put in charge of the Civil Administration, the military agency responsible for approving construction projects and demolishing unauthorized buildings across Area C – for both Israeli settlers and Palestinians. If the far-right leader's demand is met, it could have a dramatic impact on life in the West Bank.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud has agreed in principle to this demand, which is of great importance to Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party. The details haven’t been finalized, however.

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The Civil Administration is currently subordinate to the Defense Ministry, so one option would be to have Smotrich appoint a minister or deputy minister within that ministry who would have control over the agency. Another would be to transfer the agency to another ministry.

Either way, it would likely lead to settlement expansion, and thereby to international criticism of the government.

The Civil Administration is responsible for all aspects of civilian life in the West Bank – approving construction plans both in settlements and in Palestinian towns in Area C, the part of the West Bank officially under full Israeli control; building infrastructure, including roads; agricultural issues; and hookups to water infrastructure.

It is also in charge of enforcing planning and construction laws on both Israelis and Palestinians in Area C. In addition, it issues permits to Palestinians seeking to enter Israel for any reason and is responsible for security coordination with the Palestinian Authority.

Religious Zionism’s platform called for abolishing the agency and transferring its powers to various government ministries, with the goal of “entrenching Israel’s hold on the territory and making it civilian, rather than having it be through a temporary military government.” The agency is especially hated by settler leaders, because it symbolizes a strictly military control of the West Bank.

Unlike Israelis living in Israel proper, settlers need permission from military officers for various civilian activities, rather than from government ministries.

Expanding settlements and legalizing outposts

The Civil Administration’s Supreme Planning Council must approve all construction plans for settlements, as well as retroactive legalization of unauthorized settlement outposts. Construction plans in settlements also require the defense minister’s approval, and during his previous terms as prime minister, Netanyahu often vetoed plans due to international, and especially American, sensitivities.

An illegal outpost in the southern West Bank being evacuated by Civil Administration personnel, last year.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In addition, the Civil Administration determines whether land is Palestinian-owned or state land, and whether a given plot of land or building was bought legally, both important factors in legalizing outposts. For instance, it was the Civil Administration that decided whether the unauthorized outpost of Evyatar, near Nablus, could be relocated to another nearby site. Religious Zionism’s platform calls for legalizing outposts en masse.

Increased enforcement

The agency sets its own priorities regarding enforcement of planning and construction laws. But demolishing illegal construction by Israelis is considered politically sensitive; settler leaders and rightist politicians often lobby to prevent it. The defense minister’s adviser on settlements also weighs in.

Smotrich has repeatedly assailed the demolition of illegal outposts. In August, he even encouraged people to donate to rebuild the outpost of Ramat Migron, which the Civil Administration had razed.

Civil Administration demolishing a Palestinian family's house in the South Hebron hills, this year.Credit: Courtesy of Najah Taamat

But his party wants to step up enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction, as part of what the right terms “the battle for Area C.” This portrayal of the matter as a war has also gained ground in the Civil Administration, and the outgoing government approved 15 new inspectors for the agency who will focus on illegal Palestinian construction.

Separation and discrimination

In recent years, major human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have published reports saying the situation in the West Bank constitutes apartheid. This is largely due to Israel’s discriminatory treatment regarding the area’s two populations, settlers and Palestinians, who aren’t subject to the same legal system.

One way to implement Smotrich’s demand for control over the Civil Administration would be to transfer its powers over Israelis, especially with regard to construction and infrastructure, to the Finance Ministry, while leaving Palestinians under the Defense Ministry’s control. In that case, settlers would be under a civilian government while Palestinians would be under a military one.

This could fuel Palestinian demands for the United Nations and other international institutions to declare Israel has annexed the West Bank de facto and set up an apartheid regime there.

The diplomatic front

Over the last year and a half, during the Bennett-Lapid government’s time in office, the Palestinian Authority has racked up several diplomatic achievements in its battle against Israeli policy in the West Bank.

Until now, global recognition of the independence of Israel’s justice system and the fact that a military agency controls civilian life in the West Bank have helped successive Israeli governments deal with criticism of its conduct in the West Bank. But if Smotrich’s demand is met, this might undermine the international community’s trust in Israel.

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