Drawing annexation claims, IDF hands many West Bank powers to civilian ally of Smotrich

Left-wing activists slam transfer of key authorities, including over planning laws, land registry and regional council administration, to civilian administrator in Defense Ministry

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Chairman of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, center, with party members in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Chairman of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, center, with party members in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

A senior military general has recently approved the transfer of a raft of legal powers in the West Bank to a civilian administrator, prompting accusations that the government has increased its civil control over the territory in a further step toward de-facto annexation.

At the same time, the new administrator appointed to the post is a close associate of far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry with broad powers over the West Bank.

The move essentially puts a large amount of power over civilian affairs in the West Bank in the hands of a civilian working out of the Defense Ministry, in contravention of Israel’s policy since it captured the territory from Jordan in 1967 to have all civilian affairs managed by military officers.

It will likely allow the new administrator, under the direction of the ultranationalist Smotrich, to greatly ramp up the expansion and development of West Bank settlements to further advance their stated goal of the full annexation of the territory.

Longtime anti-settlement activist Yehuda Shaul described the step as “de jure annexation,” claiming that “Israeli civilian governance has been extended into the West Bank” under Smotrich’s guidance.

Left-wing human rights lawyer Michael Sfard told The Guardian newspaper that the order “transfers vast areas of administrative power from the military commander to Israeli civilians working for the government.”

Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in Ma’ale Adumim, in the West Bank, on February 29, 2024. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

The Civil Administration, which is subject to the Coordinator for Government Affairs in the Territories (COGAT) of the Defense Ministry, is responsible for running civilian affairs for Israelis and Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank — where Israel has full security and civilian control — and is headed by a military office, currently Brig. Gen. Hisham Ibrahim.

The Civil Administration is responsible for crucial civilian issues such as construction and planning approval, infrastructure, development, and numerous other civilian matters.

Since the governance of civilian affairs in the West Bank was long under the authority of the Civil Administration and the military, it meant the pro-settlements Religious Zionism Party could not assert political control over the establishment, development and expansion of the settlements.

But on May 29, the outgoing head of the IDF Central Command, Maj. Gen Yehuda Fox, signed an order allowing the head of the Civil Administration to delegate his areas of authority to a newly created position of “deputy head” of the Civil Administration.

And on the same day, Civil Administration head Ibrahim signed an order appointing Hillel Roth, a close associate of Smotrich, as that deputy head.

The powers delegated to Roth under Fox’s order include authority over real estate transactions; government property; land and water arrangements; protection of holy places (except the Cave of the Patriarchs, Rachel’s Tomb and Samuel’s Tomb); forestry laws; tourism; public bathing; planning of cities, villages and construction; some land registration processes; management and administration of regional councils; and many more.

Roth himself reportedly studied at the extremist Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the Yitzhar settlement in the northern West Bank known for its radicalism, and has served as a senior official in the Honenu organization which provides legal representation to right-wing Israelis suspected of nationalist crimes, among others.

He has also served as treasurer of the Samaria Regional Council settlement authority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attend a Knesset vote on the state budget, February 7, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“In short, Israeli civilian governance has been extended into the WB under Bezalel Smotrich to manage much of the civilian affairs in the West Bank, among them: lands, planning and construction, transactions in ‘state lands,’ national parks. etc,” Shaul wrote on X on Friday.

Sfard told The Guardian, which first reported the story, that the transfer of authority to Roth meant that legal power in the West Bank was now in the hands of “an apparatus headed by an Israeli minister… whose only interest is to advance Israeli interests.”

Sfard also said that while the head of the Civil Administration is a military officer subordinate to the IDF’s command, Roth is a civilian who answers to Smotrich.

Also on Friday, a researcher for the left-wing Peace Now organization, which also campaigns against the settlements, provided to The New York Times a recording of comments made on June 9 by Smotrich in an internal Religious Zionism Party event, in which he boasted of how steps he has taken have meant that civilians in the Defense Ministry under his authority were now in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, rather than the military.

Among those steps, Smotrich referenced the new Settlements Administration, created within the Defense Ministry at his behest in 2023, to manage and direct civilian affairs through COGAT and the Civil Administration.

“We created a separate civilian system,” Smotrich declared during the June 9 meeting.

“There is a ministry within the Defense Ministry. There is a minister. There is an administration which is like a government ministry [the Settlements Administration]. The head of the administration is equivalent to a director general of a government ministry. … There is a deputy head of the Civil Administration, who is a civilian, an employee of the Defense Ministry — subordinate not to the head of the Civil Administration, not to the commander of the Central Command, but to the Settlement Administration,” he continued.

“We came to settle the land, to build it, and to prevent its division and the establishment of a Palestinian state, God forbid. And the way to prevent this is to develop the settlements,” Smotrich was recorded saying.

A spokesperson for Smotrich confirmed to The Times of Israel that the quotes were accurate.

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