ASA’EL, West Bank: With attention focused on its contentious judicial overhaul, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has quietly taken unprecedented steps toward cementing Israel’s control over the West Bank — perhaps permanently.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a leader of the settlement movement, assumed new powers over the occupied territory in his coalition agreement with Netanyahu. Smotrich moved swiftly to approve thousands of new settlement homes, legalize previously unauthorized wildcat outposts and make it more difficult for Palestinians to build homes and move about.
As the first government minister to oversee civilian life in the West Bank, his role amounts to a recognition that Israel’s 56-year military occupation is not temporary but permanent, observers say.
“If Smotrich keeps this position for four years we will be at a point of no return,” said Ilan Paz, former head of Israel’s Civil Administration, a military body overseeing civilian affairs in the West Bank.
Hoping to return to power while facing a corruption trial, Netanyahu offered sweeping concessions to pro-settler lawmakers like Smotrich to form his governing coalition last year. The coalition agreement created a new Israeli settler agency, led by Smotrich, within the Defense Ministry to manage Jewish and Palestinian construction in the 60 percent of the West Bank over which Israel has control.
“It’s a sort of revolution, transferring powers from the military, with its legal obligation to consider the well-being of occupied people, to those only committed to Israeli interests,” said human rights lawyer Michael Sfard.
Smotrich has said he seeks to double the settler population, build up roads and neighborhoods and erase any remaining differences between life for Israelis in the West Bank and within Israel proper. Along the way, he hopes to destroy any Palestinian hopes of independence.
As finance minister, Smotrich can funnel taxpayer funds to West Bank infrastructure projects. Israel’s 2024 budget earmarks an all-time high of $960 million — a quarter of all Transportation Ministry funds — for a highway network better connecting Israel to the West Bank. The settlers are just over 5 percent of Israel’s population.
Smotrich and his supporters see the West Bank as the biblical homeland of the Jewish people and envision a single state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea in which Palestinians can live quietly with second-class status or leave.
“We felt like the state never prioritized us because of where we lived. Smotrich is changing that,” said Smotrich’s spokesperson Eitan Fuld.
While Smotrich’s new settler agency now handles the territory’s land-use issues, COGAT, the military body that oversees the Civil Administration, retains specific responsibilities over more than 2 million Palestinians. Rights groups and others have compared the division along ethnic lines to ” apartheid.”
Some half-million settlers live in the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war. The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements illegal.
Experts and officials say Smotrich’s policies already have compounded Palestinian misery, emboldened violent settlers and unleashed turmoil within Israel’s military establishment. Recent settlement expansion has also strained the Netanyahu government’s ties with the White House.Smotrich declined interview requests.
“Smotrich took over the Civil Administration, the only tool that Israel has to calm things down,” said former West Bank military commander Gadi Shamni. “The West Bank will explode.”
Monthly settler attacks have surged by over 30 percent this year, compared to 2022, UN figures show. The government has approved 13,000 settlement housing units and legalized 20 outposts built without authorization, said anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now, the highest levels since the group started counting in 2012.
Under Smotrich, Israeli authorities have pressed on with the demolition of Palestinian construction built without permits. COGAT acknowledged in July that it rejects over 95 percent of Palestinian permit requests.
This year’s demolitions are up slightly from last year, which saw the most demolitions since at least 2006, according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem.
Meanwhile Israeli authorities have scaled back efforts to evacuate unauthorized Jewish outposts, settlers say.
“This is the best government we’ve ever had,” said 32-year-old Shulamit Ben Yashar from the outpost of Asa’el in the arid hills south of Hebron. The outpost — home to 90 families, including Smotrich’s brother Tuvia — received legal approval on Sept. 6.
Renovation fever ran high at the Asa’el playground as mothers gushed about their plans to swap ramshackle caravans and wheezing generators for concrete and Israel’s national electricity grid.
Their Palestinian neighbors — herders across dusty slopes known as Masafer Yatta — face expulsion by Israeli authorities and increased attacks by settlers. Residents in the rural area, which the Israeli military plans to seize, say Smotrich and his allies are squeezing the life from their communities.
“We can barely breathe,” said 38-year-old Sameer Hammdeh, whose two camels were killed last month after stumbling over trip wires he said were placed by settlers. Residents say settler provocations — damaging Palestinian cars and hurting livestock — reflect a sense of impunity instilled by the government.
Smotrich and his allies have also vowed to hasten the pace of settlement construction. In July, the government slashed six stages of approval required for settlement advancement down to two: Smotrich and a planning committee.
“This makes it possible to build much more,” said Zvi Yedidia Sukkot, lawmaker in Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party.
The party has proposed allocating $180 million to renovate settlement housing and build new hospitals and schools. Authorities are paving two new multimillion-dollar bypass roads to whisk Israeli settlers around Palestinian towns.
One of the roads goes around Hawara, a flashpoint town where settlers burned dozens of houses and cars in a rampage early this year following the deadly shooting of two settlers. At the time, Smotrich said the town should be “erased.”
“Our government has finally figured out that withdrawing from land is a prize for terror,” said Rabbi Menachem Ben Shachar, a teacher at a newly built yeshiva seminary at Homesh, one of four outposts that Israel evacuated in 2005.
Lawmakers repealed the legislation this year that had barred settlers from visiting the site. Over 50 students were rocking in prayer at the yeshiva on a recent visit.
Such decisions have unsettled Israel’s defense establishment. Settlers said that Israeli forces in May tried to stop them from hauling heavy construction equipment to build a new yeshiva. But when Smotrich pressed, the government abruptly ordered troops to allow settlers to build.
“The political echelon ordered the military echelon not to obey the law,” said Nitzan Alon, a retired general who once commanded the West Bank region.
The military and COGAT declined to comment on that incident. But a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter, said Smotrich’s intervention has halted several planned demolitions in unauthorized outposts.
Last month, the tug-of-war between Smotrich stalwarts and security-minded military men burst into the open when Israeli authorities were filmed pumping cement into wells south of Hebron, permanently sealing Palestinian water sources in the heat of summer. Palestinians had drilled the wells without permits that Israel rarely provides.
The footage spread on social media, and COGAT was caught off-guard, said the security official. The agency promised any future demolitions of water cisterns “would be examined based on their merits.”
Smotrich’s men are “crossing all the lines,” said Paz, the former general. “They don’t care.”