Defense minister creates new post to combat illegal Palestinian construction

Naftali Bennett taps former Netanyahu adviser on settlement affairs to fill new position in his office targeting wildcat building in Israel-controlled Area C of West Bank

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) meets with his new adviser Kobi Eliraz on January 9, 2019. (Courtesy)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) meets with his new adviser Kobi Eliraz on January 9, 2019. (Courtesy)

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday announced the appointment of an external adviser who will be tasked with combating illegal Palestinian construction in the West Bank.

Kobi Eliraz, who as Defense Ministry adviser on settlement affairs from 2016 to 2019 worked primarily on regulating illegal Israeli construction beyond the Green Line, will now “coordinate the fight against illegal Palestinian construction in Area C on behalf of the defense minister,” Bennett’s office said in a statement.

Last month, Bennett declared that combating illegal Palestinian construction in the roughly 60% of the West Bank that is under Israeli military and civil control based on the 1994 Oslo Accords would be a top priority for his office.

“The future of the Land of Israel is at stake,” Bennett said in a statement introducing the appointment of Eliraz. “Unfortunately, while the Palestinians have been taking over territory in a largely uninterrupted manner, the State of Israel simply has not risen to the occasion.

Illustrative: Israeli police stand near an excavator as it demolishes a Palestinian home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher on April 7, 2009. (Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

“The defense establishment will begin fighting on the ground, and for this it is essential that there is someone to lead the campaign. Kobi Eliraz is the right person at the right time. He is an expert in the field and a bulldozer of a worker,” Bennett concluded.

Eliraz has spoken out against the phenomenon since he was abruptly fired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last June, when the latter served as defense minister, in a move that deeply angered settler leaders. Eliraz, who had served under defense ministers Moshe Ya’alon, Avigdor Liberman and Netanyahu, was replaced by former Binyamin Regional Council chairman Avi Roeh. Roeh is believed to be much closer to the premier.

Eliraz, who had previously served as the chairman of the Eli settlement’s secretariat and as an official in the Housing Ministry, became well regarded in government and settler circles for his professionalism and knowledge of the issues.

In an August interview with The Times of Israel, Eliraz lamented the pace at which illegal Palestinian construction has ballooned over the past decade without any enforcement by state authorities in Area C.

Former Defense Ministry adviser on settlement affairs, Kobi Eliraz attends a conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Kedem, in the West Bank, on September 5, 2019. (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Citing Defense Ministry statistics, Eliraz said that compared to Israeli settlers who number roughly 450,000 but take up roughly 9% of Area C, the 240,000 Palestinians there have managed to gain control of 30% of the land, with much of it being used for agricultural and grazing purposes.

As for the over 100 illegal Israeli outposts, Eliraz said that most of those communities were established with the tacit support of the government, on land that does not belong privately to Palestinians, and therefore should be legalized as well.

The number of illegally built structures by Palestinians in Area C doubled in the past decade to over 60,000, according to figures from Regavim, a group that monitors illegal Palestinian construction.

Palestinians, however, often argue that they are left with no choice but to build without permits because Israel very rarely grants such approvals. Recent years have seen the total number of approvals for Palestinians remain in the single digits, compared to the thousands green-lighted for Israeli settlers.

Israel demolished 270 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank last year, according to B’Tselem, including 106 homes and 150 non-residential structures. The number of homes demolished marked a spike compared to 2018 and 2017 when 81 and 103 were razed, respectively.

In apparent recognition of the discrepancy in approvals, the cabinet last August approved a package of building approvals in Area C that included 700 permits for Palestinians and 3,000 permits for Israelis.

Settler leaders and right-wing lawmakers were quick to laud Eliraz’s appointment, which evoked anger on the other side of the aisle.

Border Police officers stand guard at an outpost near the Yitzhar settlement on October 24, 2019. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Liberman called him the “right person” to tackle the issue at hand. Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Shlomo Ne’eman said the appointment “gives us much optimism for the future… as it will determine the scope of the land, and the face of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] for future generations.”

On the left, the Peace Now settlement watchdog blasted the appointment, saying it was part of Bennett’s larger plan to annex Area C.

“Bennett is utilizing the temporary power entrusted to him [as minister in a transitional government] without a clear mandate to advance a plan that is undemocratic and has no popular support,” the group said.

Meretz party chairman Nitzan Horowitz slammed the move, saying it showed Bennett only cares about the settlements and not about Israel proper.

For his part, Eliraz thanked Bennett for the appointment and said he was “excited to take on the challenge.”

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