After clash over West Bank outpost, Gallant and Smotrich meet with Netanyahu

Defense minister also holds meeting with West Bank settlement community leaders after ordering the demolition of illegal structures established by settler activists

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) (Yonatan Sindel; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) (Yonatan Sindel; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also serves as a junior minister in the Defense Ministry, met Monday night with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time since the two ministers clashed over the razing of an illegal West Bank outpost.

On Sunday, radical settler activists attempted to reestablish the Or Chaim outpost in the northern West Bank. Police and Civil Administration forces had evacuated and destroyed structures at the site on Friday, the day after it was put up.

Five families established Or Chaim on Thursday night, located next to the Migdalim settlement, overlooking the “Trans-Samarian highway.” Among those involved was the grandson of the late Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a leading religious Zionist figure, for whom the outpost is named.

The outpost was razed on Friday on Gallant’s order, triggering tensions within the coalition between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit factions.

Smotrich said he had told the Civil Administration, an agency within the Defense Ministry, to halt the evacuation of Or Chaim but that Gallant had regardless authorized the action.

Under terms of a coalition agreement between Likud and  Religious Zionism, Smotrich was made a minister within the Defense Ministry and given authority over the Civil Administration, which is in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, including enforcement against illegal construction.

Security forces move in to evacuate an illegal settlement outpost established in the West Bank on January 20, 2023. (Courtesy)

The purpose of this power transfer was to enable Smotrich — who is also finance minister — to reduce enforcement against illegal Israeli construction in the West Bank in line with his ideological support for the settlement movement. It would also position him to increase enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction, in line with his vehement opposition to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

But a former legal adviser to the defense establishment told The Times of Israel in an interview last week that for Smotrich to be given independent authority in the ministry and to give orders to the hybrid civil-military Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), and its office, the Civil Administration, the government would need to amend two of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws — The Government and The Military.

Religious Zionism’s three ministers boycotted Sunday’s cabinet meeting in protest of Gallant’s decision to override Smotrich’s order. Netanyahu had backed Gallant in a statement.

The meeting on Monday night between Gallant, Smotrich, and Netanyahu was first reported by Channel 13 news and confirmed to The Times of Israel by a spokesperson for one of the involved parties.

The trio were expected to hold another meeting on Tuesday.

Activists attempt to reestablish an illegal settlement outpost dubbed Or Chaim in the northern West Bank on January 22, 2023. (Courtesy)

Earlier on Monday, Gallant held a meeting with the leaders of fifteen regional and local settlement councils in the West Bank, his office said.

Gallant told the community leaders that “the battle for Area C is a central issue. In these territories, we are responsible both on the security side and on the civilian side, and we must make sure that we control the situation, and impose the law and order.”

Right-wing Israeli NGOs and activist groups allege that unauthorized Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control, is not subject to the same enforcement as unauthorized Israeli construction, and that widespread Palestinian construction is part of a coordinated effort to establish territorial contiguity between Areas A and B of the territory, which are under Palestinian control but are geographically fragmented.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with the leaders of West Bank settlement communities at the Knesset, January 23, 2023. (Courtesy)

According to the right-wing Regavim organization, which tracks illegal Palestinian construction in the West Bank, over 5,500 illegal structures were built in Area C in 2022.

Although the number of illegal Israel structures is far lower, according to Regavim, thousands of permitted housing units are constructed in the West Bank Israeli settlements every year.

According to the left-wing Peace Now organization, construction began on 22,987 housing units from 2010 to 2021.

Authorization for Palestinian construction is very rarely issued, which Palestinians say leaves them with little choice other than building illegally. Under the terms of the 1995 Oslo Interim Agreement, control over Area C was meant to be gradually handed over to the Palestinian authority.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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