Gallant overrides Smotrich to evacuate West Bank outpost, shaking gov't

The move violated coalition agreements and sparked an immediate political crisis for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech withIsraelis who set up new illegal West Bank outpost in memory of Rabbi Drukman (photo credit: MK LIMOR SON HAR-MELECH'S OFFICE)
Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech withIsraelis who set up new illegal West Bank outpost in memory of Rabbi Drukman
(photo credit: MK LIMOR SON HAR-MELECH'S OFFICE)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant overrode the authority of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and ordered the evacuation of a new West Bank settler outpost in the Samaria region of the West Bank on Friday.

The move sparked an immediate coalition crisis for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose new government has been in office for less than a month and is already struggling with a crisis with the Shas party.

The issue of oversight with respect to settler and Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank had been under the purview of the Defense Minister.

Under the new government's coalition agreements, that authority was supposed to be transferred to Smtorich, a minister in the Defense Ministry with oversight of the IDF's civil administration.

Smotrich's authority was tested almost immediately when five right-wing activist families illegally constructed an outpost in the Samaria region late Thursday and early Friday morning.  

 Israeli security forces arrive at the hours-old settlement and prepare to evacuate it on January 20, 2023.  (credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT) Israeli security forces arrive at the hours-old settlement and prepare to evacuate it on January 20, 2023. (credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

Smotrich instructed the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, not to allow the evacuation until the two had time to discuss the matter at the start of the week, Smotrich's spokesperson said. 

Gallant ordered the evacuation to be carried out despite the directive, without consulting Smotrich and "in complete contradiction to the coalition agreements which form the basis for the government's existence," Smotrich's spokesman said.

The evacuation comes just one day after United States National Security Council Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Jerusalem and Ramallah. He met with both Netanyahu and Gallant. The Biden administration has been clear in its opposition to settlement building.

The Prime Minister's Office put out an announcement clarifying that Netanyahu's government supports West Bank settlements.

Clarifications and reactions

It clarified, however, that settlement activity must be done legally and with full coordination with both the Prime Minister's Office and the security establishment, something that did not happen here.

Gallant spoke with newly installed IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and reaffirmed his full support for the army and security forces. 

Gallant clarified that "every action on the ground must be conducted in accordance with the law. It must also be fully coordinated and must be taken in accordance with the relevant security situation assessment," according to the Defense Ministry.

Former IDF chiefs-of-staff, MK Benny Gantz who heads the opposition National Unity Party and MK Gadi Eizenkot of that same party, both spoke out in defense of Gallant.

But Smotrich's National Religious Party blasted the move.

National Missions Minister Orit Struck (RZP) said "coalition agreements have to be respected" noting that doing so was "one hundred percent" Netanyahu's responsibility. 

After the evacuation, MK Limor Son Har-Melech of Otzma Yehudit Party tweeted that she had gone to the hilltop of the fledgling community in the morning but had failed to prevent its destruction because Gallant chose to ignore the coalition agreement.

Former prime minister Yair Lapid, who chairs the Yesh Atid party and heads the opposition, said that the evacuation proved how dysfunctional the structure of the current government is in which power is shared among ministers with no clear understanding of who is in charge.

"The government has only been in existence for three weeks and already Defense Minister B and Defense Minister C are giving contradictory orders to the army," Lapid said.

The Or Haim outpost is dedicated to the memory of the late rabbi and religious Zionist spiritual leader Haim Drukman.

It was established by Drukman's grandson Neveh Schindler and is located near the Israeli settlement of Migdalim.

Schindler said he called "on the members of the right-wing government...do not continue Gantz's policy of destruction and the left-wing government that fought the settlements.

"This hill is of first-class strategic importance and maintains Jewish control of the road through Samaria. Evacuation and destruction of the hill will be a complete surrender to the Palestinian Authority, which is working to take control of the territories in the area."

Israeli Border Police and special patrol forces also arrived on Friday morning to prepare to evacuate the new residents. Security forces quickly issued a closed military area order and informed the settlers that demolition of the new outpost would begin soon.  

Minutes later, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir contacted Gallant, ordering him to halt the planned evacuation. Ben-Gvir argued that Jews are discriminated against by Israel Police when it comes to the evacuation and demolition of settlements in comparison to Palestinians who live in the West Bank.