Defense Minister Yoav Gallant defied Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich on Friday by ordering the evacuation of an illegal outpost set up overnight in the West Bank, undermining the stability of the fledgling government.
The dismantlement was completed later in the day, largely without incident. Pictures from the scene showed only the foundation of some of the caravans remaining, though oftentimes settler activists return after security forces depart to begin rebuilding what was taken down.
The incident marked the first test of a coalition deal that sought to split the authority of the Defense Ministry, by appointing Smotrich as a minister in the ministry with responsibility for civil affairs in the West Bank.
“Minister Smotrich issued an order this morning, in accordance with his authority, to the head of the Civil Administration to stop the evacuation and to take no action until he could hold a discussion on the issue at the start of the week,” said a statement from Smotrich’s office issued as forces moved in to clear the site.
“Defense Minister Gallant ordered the evacuation to go ahead despite the order and without consulting with Minister Smotrich and completely against the coalition agreements that form the basis for the existence of the government,” the statement said.
Smotrich was indeed granted some control over the Civil Administration, the Defense Ministry body that authorizes construction in the West Bank. However, in cases such as Friday’s in which an illegal outpost is established overnight, it is the military echelon — not the civilian one — that has the authority to order the immediate dismantlement.
The relevant military figures in this case are the IDF’s Central Command head and the chief of staff, who are subordinate to Gallant, not Smotrich. The chain of command only changes after the outpost is allowed to remain in place for an extended period of time.
Gallant, a former top general and a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, spoke with IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and “gave his full support to the IDF and security forces,” a statement from his office said.
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“Any action on the ground must be done lawfully, with full coordination, and subject to a situational security assessment,” the statement said.
Netanyahu appeared to back Gallant.
“The government supports the settlements but only when it is done in a legal way and in coordination with the prime minister and the defense establishment, which did not happen,” a statement from his office said. “The prime minister will hold a discussion on the issue at the start of the week.”
According to a Channel 12 news report, Smotrich refused to take part in a conference call Friday with Netanyahu and Gallant.
The showdown came after five families established a new illegal outpost on a strategic hilltop in the northern West Bank overnight Thursday to mark one month since the death of religious Zionist leader Rabbi Chaim Druckman.
The outpost, named Or Chaim, was intentionally built near the settlement of Migdalim and overlooks the Trans-Samarian highway in order to disrupt Palestinian territorial contiguity, the founders told Hebrew media.
On Friday afternoon, a large force moved into the area and ordered the settlers to leave.
“The area has been declared a closed military zone on the order of the defense minister and we are being forced to evacuate you,” the forces announced over a loudspeaker, according to activists at the site. “Leave by your own volition or we will remove you by force.”
The establishment of the settlement was seen as an immediate challenge for the coalition which has committed to entrenching Israel’s control over the territory but has also faced pressure, particularly from the US, to act with restraint.
Coalition deals between the Likud and its religious and far-right allies include a vague promise to annex the West Bank to Israel, a pledge to legalize dozens of unauthorized settlements, and the provision of large funds for road building and public transport in the West Bank.
It also gave Smotrich the position of minister within the defense ministry with responsibility for certain civilian issues in the West Bank, setting up the clash with Gallant, who has insisted he retains overall authority.
MK Limor Son Har-Melech of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, which is part of the coalition, arrived at the site, calling on Gallant not to go ahead with the eviction.
“I’m calling from here to Defense Minister Gallant to stop the cycle of evictions and destruction and to leave these pioneering settlers in place,” she said.
She also filmed herself cursing the Civil Administration workers tasked with taking down one of the buildings, shouting, “may their names be blotted out.” She later justified the language in a tweet, saying that Arab workers were “insensitively” dispatched to carry out the job and that they allegedly were enjoying themselves while doing it.
חברת הכנסת סון הר מלך על המפנים: יימח שמם pic.twitter.com/yb6zcTQrKP
— ידידיה אפשטיין (@yedidya_epstien) January 20, 2023
Later, party leader and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir also called on Gallant to halt the evacuation.
“It’s not right that when Arabs build [illegally] in Judea and Samaria, the Civil Administration does not uphold the law, but when it’s Jews they come within hours to destroy the outpost,” he said, using the biblical names for the West Bank.
“Mr. Prime Minister. Coalition agreements must be respected and this is 100% your responsibility,” tweeted National Missions Minister Orit Strock from Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party.
Opposition politicians needled the government over the clash between Gallant and Smotrich.
“The government has only existed for three weeks and already defense minister B and defense minister C are giving the army conflicting orders,” opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted.
National Unity chair Benny Gantz, Gallant’s predecessor as defense minister, linked the government infighting to its advancement of measures that would weaken the courts by shifting powers away from judges to politicians.
“When Prime Minister Netanyahu leads a policy of trampling democratic foundations and the judicial system, it’s not surprising that the minister it’s not surprising that the minister responsible for law enforcement in the State of Israel is calling for another minister to violate it,” Gantz wrote on Twitter, referring to Ben Gvir.
Gantz also praised Gallant for “implementing a decisive and responsible policy against violations of the law and not allowing provocations and political pressures to dictate the policies in Judea and Samaria.”
On the left side of the political spectrum, the Peace Now settlement watchdog commended the security forces who carried out the demolition but noted that the “two and a half caravans” demolished were “just a drop in the bucket,” given that there are nearly 150 illegal Israeli outposts throughout the West Bank.
The group argued that if the new coalition is truly against settlements that are established without coordination with the government, it’ll act against those as well. “Evacuating the outposts is in Israel’s interest, and every day that Homesh, Evyatar and the other outposts are allowed to remain harms chances for peace and inevitably leads to increased friction and violence,” they said.
In a possible sign of moderation on settlement issues, Netanyahu on Thursday reportedly ordered the shelving of a proposal to formally split the Tel Zion neighborhood away from the central West Bank’s Kochav Yaakov settlement, which was slated to be approved by the cabinet on Sunday.
The plan had been pushed by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to better serve residents of Haredi settlements but was blocked by Netanyahu, ostensibly due to concerns over the optics of the effective creation of a new settlement days after hosting a senior official from US President Joe Biden’s administration that opposes settlement expansion.
While the international community considers all settlements illegal, Israel differentiates between 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.
However, outposts are sometimes erected with the state’s tacit approval, and successive governments have sought to legalize at least some of the unrecognized neighborhoods as a result.