analysisIsrael News

New IDF Civil Admin head appointed amid ongoing power struggles

Tension between Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant adds another layer of complexity to an already-complex situation, experts tell JNS.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (shaking Netanyahu's left hand) and Minister in the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich (shaking Netanyahu's right hand) sign a document of understandings on the division of responsibility in the Defense Ministry, Feb. 23, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (shaking Netanyahu's left hand) and Minister in the Defense Ministry Bezalel Smotrich (shaking Netanyahu's right hand) sign a document of understandings on the division of responsibility in the Defense Ministry, Feb. 23, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at: www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi has tapped Brig. Gen. Hisham Ibrahim as the new head of Israel’s Civil Administration, which regulates much of daily life—both Jewish and Arab—in Judea and Samaria, according to Israel Hayom. Ibrahim will replace Brig. Gen. Fares Atilla.

According to the report, the appointment was backed by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant—and was made without the knowledge of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who oversees a section within the Defense Ministry that supervises the Civil Administration.

In addition to his role as finance minister, Smotrich received key powers in the Civil Administration as part of coalition agreements made in January. The agreement stipulated, however, that he would have no control over military personnel appointments.

Nevertheless, Smotrich is said to have demanded that another person be appointed to the sensitive post, with his preferred candidate being rejected by both Halevi and Gallant, according to the report.

IDF Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, one of the founders of security coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Palestinian Authority, and a lecturer at the Western Galilee College in northern Israel, told JNS that the Civil Administration head has only one commander: The Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), currently Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian.

“As someone who has experienced such roles, I can attest that an officer appointed to such a senior position [as Civil Administration head] is expected to act wisely in the ‘seam’ between two worlds, each of which could turn against him in a short time. One seam is between the political echelon and the military echelon, and the other is within the military echelon itself—between COGAT and the Central Command chief [responsible for Judea and Samaria], who sometimes have opposing objectives,” said Elad.

“Now, this illogical equation has been joined by a new potential for [complication]—the tension between Smotrich and the military personnel subordinate to Defense Minister Gallant,” he added.

Professor Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies and former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, noted that the decision to set up a Civil Administration as a separate entity responsible for civilian activities—Jewish or Palestinian—in Judea and Samaria was taken in 1981, during Israeli-Egyptian negotiations over Palestinian autonomy.

During that time, he said, “It was decided to soften up the Egyptian position on Palestinian autonomy and to move the powers of the Israeli military governor to the Civil Administration head.”

The head of the Civil Administration, he continued, “is organizationally under COGAT—and that subordination includes force build up, promotions, personnel, working regulations and policy in general,” said Michael. At the same time, the Civil Administration is part of the Israeli military’s toolkit and is called upon by IDF Central Command, he added.

This means that in effect, as long as there are security dimensions to civilian activities in Judea and Samaria, Civil Administration heads get involved in projects such as setting up power plants or paving roads.

According to Elad, the Civil Administration head is supposed to manage the non-military civil activity in parts of Judea and Samaria. “Since 1981 it has replaced the military government that operated there following the 1967 war,” he said. “In Area C [of Judea and Samaria], [Israel’s] administrative responsibility is complete: taxes, licensing, medicine, etc., and in Areas B and A, the role of the Civil Administration becomes one of coordination only,” he continued. “For example: transferring patients and injured to hospitals in Israel or tax exemptions for cars of the Palestinian Authority and more,” he said.

Michael stated that under the current government, when Smotrich took responsibility for the Civil Administration, he was seeking to inject civilian personnel into it—although civilians from government ministries such as finance and communications are already present in the Civil Administration.

“Smotrich wanted all personnel there to be subordinate to him, and even if there was no formal Israeli annexation [in Judea and Samaria], he wanted to apply sovereignty on the Jewish population of Judea and Samaria and to give them access to Israeli government ministries,” he said.

“This didn’t work for Smotrich in the end. A compromise was reached under which he became a minister in the Defense Ministry with his own headquarters, and he gets command over civilian activities. The deputy Civil Administration chief is now a civilian appointed by Smotrich. In reality, it is clear to many—including to Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, that this division of responsibilities is not logical and won’t stand up to reality because every civilian activity has a security dimension,” he said.

Elad stated that “as long as the security reality remains as Gallant and Smotrich found it when they entered their role,  and Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to support Gallant in his daily ‘minor’ battles with Smotrich—no significant change is expected, only more disappointments and frustrations for Smotrich.”

Elad described the outgoing Civil Administration head, Brig. Gen. Atilla, as “excellent,” adding that he was able to skillfully “evade the pitfalls of the job. In addition, he left a good impression both on his officers and soldiers and on the residents of the area, and this should be seen as another one of his successes.”

Michael argued that activities such as the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes—ostensibly under Smotrich’s responsibility—can’t be carried out without allocating military units to secure the operations, or bringing in IDF engineering equipment, meaning that “Smotrich and his people have to coordinate everything with the IDF.”

He added: “Now we start to see the clashes occurring. And the new Civil Administration head enters this situation.”

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