newsIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Smotrich details ‘mega-dramatic’ shift to tighten control of Judea and Samaria

"We are in the middle of a huge job right now to implement a completely new enforcement system in the Civil Administration," the finance minister said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich visits the protest tent outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem of families of soldiers killed during the Iron Swords War, June 3, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich visits the protest tent outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem of families of soldiers killed during the Iron Swords War, June 3, 2024. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90.

Israel’s government is implementing a seismic shift in the way it manages the civil administration of Judea and Samaria by transferring authority from military to civilian hands.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionism Party, described the advances that had been made, and their significance, to a gathering of leaders from Judea and Samaria at Shacharit Farm, an Israeli community in western Samaria, on June 9.

Smotrich said it was critical that control of civilian matters in Judea and Samaria be taken out of military hands to energize the growth of Jewish communities and block a carefully laid Palestinian Authority plan to establish facts on the ground via illegal construction, part of its quest for a state.

“We are in the middle of a huge job right now to implement a completely new enforcement system in the Civil Administration,” Smotrich said.

“If everywhere else in the State of Israel there are certain goals for enforcement, in Judea and Samaria there is one big consideration. And in the end, it is what to do geopolitically, strategically and security-wise,” he said.

Referring to a meeting he had with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Smotrich said, “I spread out a map on the entire table and I showed him what happened in the last 10 years of his rule in Judea and Samaria.” The map revealed the extent of land lost to illegal P.A. land seizures under the Fayyad Plan.

(Salaam Fayyad, P.A. prime minister from 2007 to 2013, devised a plan to take over Judea and Samaria’s Area C, a region defined by the Oslo Accords as fully under Israeli control. The P.A. has carried out the plan virtually unhindered by the Israeli government.)

“[Netanyahu’s] eyes darkened. He said, ‘This happened under me?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ Why? Because what can you do? For the army, this isn’t at the top of its priorities,” Smotrich said, explaining that the IDF doesn’t see illegal P.A. construction as a key security issue.

He added that upon taking a bird’s-eye view of the map, “You understand that this is a geopolitical, strategic and security issue.”

(The Fayyad Plan carefully locates its illegal construction along key transportation arteries and potential border areas with the intention of pushing further into Israel the territory for a proposed Palestinian state.)

The prime minister “is fully with us,” Smotrich said, adding that Netanyahu said, “Listen, I understood. This has to change.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a debate on the state budget at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Feb. 7, 2024. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The finance minister said major strides have been made in moving authority to civilian hands, a process which began when Smotrich obtained a ministerial post in Israel’s Defense Ministry at the time of the government’s establishment in January 2023.

His position put him in charge of the Civil Administration, the ministry’s body responsible for approving construction and handling of other civilian bureaucratic matters in Judea and Samaria.

Smotrich also installed Hillel Roth, a like-minded religious Zionist, as his deputy, and Roth has been given significant powers over Israeli communities in the area.

Smotrich said the changes taking place are irreversible. “The administration is established. The transfer of legal authority is fixed,” he said. “If tomorrow the government falls and I leave, it’s there. Such is how it’s defined and set.

“I’m saying to you that this thing is mega-dramatic,” Smotrich said.

Smotrich detailed the benefits he and another member of his party, Settlements and National Missions Minister Orit Strook, brought to the project, including budgets and approvals for basic infrastructure for about 63 unofficial outposts, part of a process to regularize their legal status.

“We came to settle the land, to build it, and, heaven forbid, to prevent its division and the transfer of areas of the Land of Israel to our enemy, and [to prevent] the establishment of a Palestinian state that will endanger the State of Israel,” Smotrich said.

Although the event was public, The New York Times framed its reporting as an exposé revealing a carefully hidden plan by the Netanyahu government. The headline of its report on Sunday referred to a “secret government bid to cement control of West Bank.”

Smotrich reacted sharply to the Times‘ characterization of having been “caught on tape” as he described, in the Times characterization, a “stealthy effort to irreversibly change the way the territory is governed.”

“The New York Times ‘investigation’ did not reveal any secrets. The vast majority of the Israeli public moved on after the massacre by Hamas and understands full well that a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria would endanger the existence of Israel and opposes it,” Smotrich tweeted on Sunday.

“Nothing in what I do is confidential. Everything is on the table. With permission and authority, I will continue to develop settlement in the heart of Israel and strengthen the defense of Kfar Saba and Jerusalem [both of which adjoin Judea and Samaria]. I will fight with all my might for the State of Israel and the citizens of Israel,” he said.

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