Demolition of illegal West Bank settler construction said to plummet under Smotrich

Report finds far-right minister has blocked almost all attempts to remove unauthorized Israeli buildings since being handed broad authority over civilian issues in the West Bank

People at the newly repopulated illegal Evyatar outpost in the West Bank, June 22, 2023. (Flash90)
People at the newly repopulated illegal Evyatar outpost in the West Bank, June 22, 2023. (Flash90)

The demolition of illegal buildings constructed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank has plummeted since the Religious Zionism party leader, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, was handed broad authority over civilian issues in the territory, according to a report Sunday.

According to the report by the Haaretz newspaper, Israeli authorities demolished an average of 25 buildings per month last year in settlements and outposts. However, since Smotrich assumed control of the issue in February, that has dropped to just two approved demolitions per month.

“For a while now, there has effectively been no Israeli enforcement,” one Defense Ministry official was quoted as saying by Haaretz. “Once, enforcement was an internal IDF issue. Now almost everything gets sent to the Settlements Administration.”

The Settlements Administration was established in February when Smotrich was made an additional minister in the Defense Ministry and was given authority over some responsibilities of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Civil Administration, the two Defense Ministry agencies in charge of civilian affairs in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel has full security and civilian control.

As part of the arrangement, the Settlements Administration was established within the Defense Ministry under Smotrich’s authority, to “manage and direct” such activities by the Civil Administration and by COGAT.

According to the report, Smotrich has not only been denying authorizations for building demolitions, but he has also worked to thwart demolitions and evacuations that were actively underway.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich takes part in a march to the illegal West Bank outpost of Evyatar, near the West Bank city of Nablus, during the Passover holiday, on April 10, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Recent weeks have seen a number of new illegal outposts established across the West Bank following a deadly Palestinian terror attack in which four Israelis were killed near the settlement of Eli in the northern part of the territory.

These outposts have been set up with the explicit approval of members of the government, despite widespread pressure from the international community, including the US, to restrain settlement construction.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir has paid a visit to the Evyatar outpost, urging Jewish Israeli settlers to “run for the hilltops” — a call to establish outposts.

Evyatar was originally established illegally and without authorization in 2013 after a terror attack at nearby Tapuah Junction, in which Evyatar Borovsky was killed. The outpost was subsequently demolished, but in 2021 the Nachala settlement organization arranged for several families and activists to return to the site.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous government promised several years ago to find a solution for the Evyatar residents, in return for which they voluntarily left the outpost without the structures at the site being demolished.

The new Netanyahu government, which took office in December, pledged in its coalition agreements with Smotrich to legalize Evyatar, which is likely built on land belonging to residents of nearby Palestinian villages, though that question has not been fully settled by courts.

The Haaretz report also noted that even before Smotrich became responsible,  the enforcement of demolitions of illegal Israeli construction in the West Bank was already much less than that of illegal Palestinian construction.

Haaretz noted that in 2019, out of 187 demolition orders for new buildings issued in the West Bank, 159 were issued to Palestinians and only 28 to settlers.

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