The US warned against annexation as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Thursday was given power over civilian life in Area C of the West Bank.
The Civil Administration at the same time advanced plans for 7,157 new settler homes and prepared to push forward with the contentious E1 project.
It was a triple blow to both the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s Western allies, primarily the US, which has pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from activity that creates obstacles to the eventual creation of a two-state solution.
West Bank control
Netanyahu had assured his allies that he had the final say on all matters relating to Area C, and, initially, it appeared as if he did not intend to make good on his coalition pledge to empower Smotrich.
After a protracted negotiation, Netanyahu and Smotrich came to an agreement on the matter Thursday. Netanyahu left the elaboration of the details up to Smotrich, who issued a message of jubilation.
Israeli “citizens of Judea and Samaria will receive equal treatment and equal citizenship,” he said.
“We have a long road ahead of us, but this is a celebratory day for the residents of Judea and Samaria and... for the State of Israel,” he added.
Left-wing attorney Michael Sfard said the Smotrich agreement was “simultaneously a giant leap of legal annexation of the West Bank and an act of perpetuating the regime’s apartheid nature.”
US State Department Ned Price said “we believe it is critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from any unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions or have the potential to undercut efforts to advance the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution.
“Those steps are many, we have given illustrative examples, but they certainly include annexation of territory,” he added.
Under the terms of the deal, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will retain full security control of the West Bank.
Since the Six Day War, the defense minister has had full control over civilian life in the West Bank. That civilian control was limited under the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords to Area C of the West Bank, which is under IDF military and civilian control.
The army’s control of civilian life through its Civil Administration reflects the status of Area C, which is outside of Israel’s sovereign borders.
To maintain some semblance that civilian life in Area C is still an army matter, Smotrich serves, along with the Finance Ministry portfolio, as a minister in the Defense Ministry.
He has been clear about his belief that all of Area C, which he calls Judea and Samaria, must be part of Israel’s final borders and that he wants to see issues relating to civilian life transferred to the relevant ministries.
In the interim, both he and a civilian deputy, whom he will appoint, will be in charge of civilian matters. They will also appoint civilian staff to work under them.
Smotrich will have control over the authorization and advancement of housing plans for settlers and Palestinians living in Area C, except for issues that need cabinet approval, such as the creation of new settlements.
He will have the ability to authorize outposts as neighborhoods of new settlements, as has already been the practice of the Civil Administration.
Smotrich will also have control over the demolition of illegal houses, such as in settler outposts, or illegal Palestinian structures in Area C, according to his office.
In addition, Smotrich will have the power to declare nature reserves, determine the status of land and to authorize transportation and infrastructure projects, his office said.
He will also have authority over property registration and land declaration, which includes investigations and declarations of whether the land belongs to the state or to individual Jewish or Palestinian property owners, it said.
Smotrich will be tasked with ensuring that for every law within sovereign Israeli territory, there will be a matching IDF edict to ensure legal equity between Israel and Area C of the West Bank.
The IDF, primarily OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, can in special circumstances execute enforcement, but he must first notify Smotrich. Netanyahu will have final say in cases of dispute.
Separately on Thursday, the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria finished a two-day meeting in which it advanced plans for 7,157 settler homes, including 43 building plans in 33 settlements and four outposts, which would become neighborhoods of existing settlements, according to Peace Now.
The largest plan was for more than 1,000 new homes in the Ma’aleh Adumim settlement, which is located just outside of Jerusalem.
Separately, the Higher Planning Council for Judea and Samaria set a March 27 date to hear objections to the E1 plan, which involves 3,412 homes.
The E1 project is slated for construction in an unbuilt area of Ma’aleh Adumim. Once it passes the objection stage, it must return to the Higher Planning Council for final approval.
The plan was first put forward under former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s government but was considered so controversial that it was frozen by every Israeli government.
Netanyahu moved it forward during the election cycles, but it was suspended by the previous government under pressure from the US.