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Deal will give Smotrich say in filling sensitive West Bank defense posts

Coalition pact shifts process of picking heads of COGAT and Civil Administration to politicians, granting right-wing more power to expand settlements, restrict Palestinians

Bezalel Smotrich holding a sign calling for the authorization of new settlements during a visit to the West Bank on October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Bezalel Smotrich holding a sign calling for the authorization of new settlements during a visit to the West Bank on October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

A deal between the Likud and Religious Zionism parties will give politicians increased control over who fills two key Defense Ministry positions managing life for Palestinians and Israeli settlers in much of the West Bank.

According to the Sunday report in Haaretz, the parties have agreed to change the process for choosing the heads of the Civil Administration and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, also known as COGAT, likely bolstering a bid by pro-settlement hardliners to expand Israel’s presence in the territories while clamping down on Palestinians.

Update: The partial coalition deal, published later Sunday, confirmed the report.

The far-right Religious Zionism party and its leader Bezalel Smotrich have pushed for a heavier hand in controlling Israeli policies in the West Bank, raising fears that they will use the newfound authority to rapidly expand Israeli construction and the establishment of new settlements while upping enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction in parts of the West Bank under Israeli civil control.

Under the already-announced terms of a coalition deal between Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and Smotrich, a junior minister embedded in the Defense Ministry by Religious Zionism will exercise control over COGAT and the Civil Administration, agencies under the ministry and the Israel Defense Forces which serve as the military liaison to the Palestinians and direct civilian life in Area C of the West Bank.

According to the report, that authority may also extend to appointing who leads the agencies, a task that currently falls to the head of the Israel Defense Forces, with the approval of the defense minister the only form of political intervention.

The reform could lead to the politicization of a highly sensitive role, potentially increasing tensions with Palestinians, the international community and the army itself, which takes pains to distance itself from political affairs.

File: Then-coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT) Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, left, and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh sign an agreement to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, January 15, 2017. (Courtesy COGAT)

The Haaretz report cited an unnamed source involved in ongoing talks between the parties regarding how the appointments will be handled. According to the broadsheet, the appointment process may include the IDF chief alongside the prime minister, defense minister and the junior minister. Smotrich, who may fill the junior minister role alongside his position as finance minister, is expected to have a large role in the process, the paper reported.

Following the announcement of a coalition deal last week, Likud said decisions regarding settlements previously under the aegis of the defense minister and head of the IDF would be transferred to the Religious Zionism junior minister, albeit “in coordination and agreement with the prime minister.”

COGAT deals mainly with aspects of Palestinian life where they intersect with Israel. The body is responsible for granting Palestinians entry permits into Israel, coordinates the transfer of aid and other goods into Gaza and the West Bank, and liaises with the Palestinian Authority on other matters.

The Civil Administration, which is part of COGAT, has control over planning and construction in Area C of the West Bank, an area comprising some 60 percent of the territory that is home to all of Israel’s 491,000 settlers and tens of thousands more Palestinians. The body authorizes construction both in settlements and for Palestinians and carries out enforcement against illegal construction by both.

A Civil Administration official hands a notice regarding the pending demolition of Khan al-Ahmar to one of its residents on September 23, 2018. (Civil Administration)

Smotrich is a longtime advocate for increased settlement building — including the retroactive authorization of illegal wildcat outposts. He has also led efforts to lobby for upped enforcement against unauthorized Palestinian building, which right-wing organizations claim is part of a Palestinian Authority plan to create a de facto, territorially contiguous Palestinian state which they vociferously oppose.

Palestinians argue that Israel almost never grants construction permits outside of settlements, forcing them to build illegal structures to keep up with natural population growth.

The Religious Zionism election platform calls for the retroactive authorization of some 70 unauthorized settlement outposts where approximately 25,000 settlers live, and sets itself a goal of bringing another one million settlers to the West Bank by reducing the bureaucratic process required for new settlement construction.

Security forces from the Civil Administration and the police demolish one of the homes in the illegal settlement outpost of Ramat Migron on August 30, 2022. (Courtesy Ramat Migron settlers)

It also calls for intensified efforts to map out land ownership in the West Bank in order to enable the declaration of more land as state-owned on which to build settlements.

While the international community considers all settlement activity illegal in the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, Israel differentiates between legal settlement homes built and permitted by the Defense Ministry on land owned by the state, and illegal outposts built without necessary permits, often on private Palestinian land.

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich sign a coalition deal in Jerusalem on December 1, 2022. (Likud)

Smotrich had initially sought the defense minister role for himself, but was rebuffed by Netanyahu due to his extreme positions and lack of security experience and amid reported concern from the Biden Administration.

He later pushed to have the Civil Administration transferred to the Finance Ministry, but sparked pushback from critics who said moving authority from the military to a civilian department would amount to de facto annexation of the West Bank.

The deal to keep the body under the Defense Ministry, but allow the junior minister to control COGAT and settlement policy, ostensibly represents a compromise between the sides.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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