Far-right ministers fume over removal of settler’s trees, demanding promised powers

Netanyahu caves, orders operation to stop; Smotrich, Ben Gvir demand he give them authority over civilian control, Border Police in West Bank ‘immediately’ as per coalition deals

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

Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech stands in front of a bulldozer on a plot of land near the settlement of Shiloh in the West Bank to stop the uprooting of trees by the Civil Administration of the Defense Ministry, February 15, 2023. (Office of Limor Son Har Melech)
Otzma Yehudit MK Limor Son Har-Melech stands in front of a bulldozer on a plot of land near the settlement of Shiloh in the West Bank to stop the uprooting of trees by the Civil Administration of the Defense Ministry, February 15, 2023. (Office of Limor Son Har Melech)

Civil Administration and Border Police executed an order to uproot trees planted without authorization by a settler in the West Bank on Wednesday, angering far-right ministers who responded with a series of demands for promised powers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

After a number of hours, Netanyahu ordered that the operation be brought to an end and the remaining trees left in place, but the remainder of the trees were uprooted later in the afternoon after the operation resumed.

While the initial operation was being carried out, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich denounced it as “an injustice that screams out to Heaven” and demanded Netanyahu transfer authority over the Civil Administration to him immediately in accordance with coalition agreements, which he averred were “the basis for the existence of the coalition.”

Smotrich accused Netanyahu of “unacceptable foot-dragging” over the issue, and said his Religious Zionism party would be holding an “emergency” faction meeting later on Wednesday to discuss its next steps.

Later, the Walla news outlet reported that Netanyahu contacted Smotrich on Wednesday and reassured him that the agreement would be honored and his powers would be granted “as soon as possible.”

Dozens of activists flocked to the site on Wednesday morning, including two MKs, to try and stop the removal of the trees from the plot of non-state land.

Some stood in front of bulldozers and tied themselves to trees, although ultimately some 1,100 trees were uprooted and removed in the operation, according to Yoav Ben Eliyahu, the son of Chen Ben Eliyahu who began planting the trees in the early 2000s.

Numerous activists were reportedly arrested during violent confrontations with security personnel. Footage from the incident uploaded to social media showed Border Police officers using violent methods to detain activists, leading to the suspension of three officers.

The two ultranationalist lawmakers, Limor Son Har-Melech of Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism’s Tzvi Succot, joined the efforts to halt the operation, and attempted to physically impede the security forces from carrying out the order, but were eventually removed by Border Police officers.

Son Har-Melech later alleged that she had been sexually assaulted by Border police officers who removed her from the scene. Border Police said she was treated respectfully.

The incident has again laid bare tensions within the coalition over who has authority over the Civil Administration, pitting Smotrich, who is a minister within the Defense Ministry, against Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

The uprooted trees were removed on the basis of a Disruptive Land-Use Order of the Civil Administration against a settler who planted the trees on a plot of land near the settlement of Shiloh in the northern West Bank.

The dispute over the land between settler activists and local Palestinians who claim ownership dates back to 2005, but in 2021 the High Court of Justice ruled that the Civil Administration’s order for the removal of the trees was valid and could be executed.

As the operation was underway, Smotrich fired off a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing Gallant of undermining his authority and demanding that the premier halt the operation immediately.

“A month ago, as a minister in the Defense Ministry with authority over COGAT and the Civil Administration, I gave instructions to annul the Unauthorized Use order against Chen Ben Eliyahu,” wrote Smotrich in his letter to Netanyahu, naming the settler who planted the trees.

“To my great astonishment, the defense minister grossly violated the coalition agreement and overturned my decision.

“Furthermore, instead of implementing a settlement security policy, Minister Gallant has chosen to continue with the left-wing policies of former defense minister Benny Gantz and uproot orchards despite the fact that the claims against the orchard were proved to be false within the framework of legal deliberations,” Smotrich wrote.

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich during a vote in the Knesset, December 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I demand that you immediately freeze the uprooting of the orchard and transfer to me today the authorities that the coalition agreement obliges [you to do] and that common sense and our commitment to millions of voters to whom we made a propose to change the left-wing policies of Benny Gantz in Judea and Samaria requires us to do,” fumed Smotrich, using the Biblical name for the West Bank.

As the operation to uproot the trees unfolded, the right-wing Honenu legal advocacy organization posted video footage on social media by showing settler activists resisting arrest and Border Police acting violently against them, including one Border Police officer who kicked an activist in the head as he was being wrestled to the ground by other officers, and another policeman repeatedly punching the same activist once on the floor.

Head of the Border Police Amir Cohen said the incident would be investigated, following the suspension of the three officers involved.

Following the incident, Son Har Hamelech claimed in an interview with Kan Radio that she was sexually assaulted by one of the border policemen who surrounded her.

The MK has not yet filed a police complaint since she was needed in the Knesset plenum for votes on multiple coalition bills, her spokesman said.

In response to Son Har-Melech’s allegations, police said in a statement: “The Border Police commander was updated throughout the incident, and it is important to emphasize that in addition to the immunity and freedom of movement the MK enjoys, the forces acted with great sensitivity and determination while leading respectful dialogue and exhibiting professional conduct during the incident.”

Smotrich later castigated the behavior of the Border Police over the incident, saying that the “the brutal police violence” against the settler activists and the “harm to MK Limor Har Melech and the violation to her parliamentary immunity is unacceptable.”

The ownership over the land in question has never been formally established, but until 2005 it was not formally registered as private land belonging to anyone. The heirs to a Palestinian family have claimed ownership to the plot, while the Ben Eliyahu family claims it bought the land legitimately in 2002.

The Civil Administration sought to remove the trees planted by Ben Eliyahu after he began working the land, claiming he had no right to use non-state land — land that is neither owned by the state nor with clear private ownership.

Later Wednesday morning, Smotrich pointed out again in a tweet that his party’s coalition agreement with Netanyahu’s Likud establishing the government included stipulations that he be given authority over the Civil Administration and its enforcement powers against illegal and unauthorized civilian activity in the West Bank as minister in the Defense Ministry.

“Defense Minister Galant’s denial of this unambiguous agreement and the prime minister’s foot-dragging on the matter are unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue,” Smotrich declared.

“This is a clause that everyone knew was central to our agreement and the basis for the existence of a coalition is the adherence to the coalition agreements. I demand that the prime minister transfer the powers to me immediately,” Smotrich wrote.

Otzma Yehudit’s leader, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, issued a statement to the press saying he had demanded on Tuesday night that Gallant call off the operation, which the defense minister refused. Like Smotrich, Ben Gvir called on Netanyahu to halt the uprooting of the trees.

Ben Gvir similarly accused Netanyahu of violating the coalition agreements on which the government was established, and demanded that the West Bank division of the Border Police be transferred to his control as national security minister at the next cabinet meeting.

The far-right leader also gave strong backing to his party’s lawmaker Son Har Hamelech for trying to prevent security personnel from uprooting the trees, saying the Civil Administration and Border Police officials had violated her parliamentary immunity.

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