We don’t usually applaud the actions of government ministers associated with far-right parties, particularly those who continue to engage in both policies and rhetoric we view as harmful, but credit ought to be given where it is due.
On Monday, Border Police officers descended on A’yira Shahar, an illegal outpost near Ayelet Hashahar in Samaria’s Binyamin Regional Council, and demolished or removed five structures built at the site. Local residents scuffled with the forces and tried to stop the evacuation.
While the removal of illegal structures in the West Bank is not, in itself, an exceptionally rare occurrence, what made Monday’s events novel was that they were conducted with the personal approval of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Jewish settlement in the current government. In his parallel capacity as minister in the Defense Ministry, Smotrich is responsible for overseeing construction plans in the West Bank – and for enforcement measures against illegal construction in the territory.
The residents of the outpost slammed Smotrich for “continuing the former government’s tradition of harming Jewish settlement and destroying homes.”
“The current evacuation entails the destruction of the homes of families with children, houses that have been on the hill for more than half a year, which are under Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s authority and whose destruction he must approve,” they said in a statement. “It is appalling that Smotrich has chosen to fight against the settlement effort.”
In a statement, sources close to Smotrich explained, somewhat apologetically, that the outpost was “built on regulated, private Arab land, and unfortunately, an agreement was not reached to move them to state-owned land where they could be regulated, as has been done in the past, for instance, in Homesh.”
“We build and regulate settlements on an unprecedented scale and do so with authority,” they said in a statement.
MK Limor Son Har-Melech of the far-right Otzma Yehudit Party – whose former spokesman was arrested in connection with the killing of a Palestinian teen last weekend – arrived at the site and said she was not willing to accept that explanation “under any circumstances.”
“Even if this particular settlement cannot be regulated now, it must not be destroyed,” Son Har-Melech said. “Area C [of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control] is full of illegal Arab structures, as the minister well knows. This selective enforcement against Jews is unacceptable.”
This is surely criticism to which Smotrich is unaccustomed.
Bezalel Smotrich criticized for actions against Israeli settlements
Illegal construction, both Israeli and Palestinian, is rampant throughout the West Bank, and Israeli authorities have struggled to get a handle on it, faced as they are with legal, diplomatic, and political hurdles. According to various NGO tallies, there are dozens of illegal Israeli outposts scattered across the West Bank, and Palestinians have built homes, businesses, and other structures without proper permits throughout the territory.
Smotrich had previously come under fire for approving far fewer demolitions in illegal Israeli outposts than had been taking place previously, with the number of demolitions plummeting from about 25 a month last year to an average of two per month since he assumed the West Bank construction and enforcement portfolio in February. And, as the sources close to him noted, the current government has endeavored to retroactively legalize several such outposts.
The question, however, is not whether Jews should be allowed to settle in Judea and Samaria; Smotrich clearly believes they should. The question is whether they should be permitted to do so without official approval – and on privately owned Palestinian land.
The High Court has consistently upheld the rights of Palestinian families on whose private land structures have been built unlawfully, ordering the state to remove the structures and grant the families access to their land. This is manifestly just, and it has nothing to do with whether Jews should be able to live in the territory.
In authorizing the removal of the structures at A’yira Shachar, Smotrich made an important and welcome statement about the necessity of upholding the rule of law for all – Israelis and Palestinians alike. We hope he and his fellow ministers continue to do so.