New department in Negev and Galilee Ministry to bolster illegal West Bank outposts

Sunday cabinet decision fails to clarify what ‘young settlement’ office’s powers will be, and how it will overlap with various other settlement-related bodies

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Negev and the Galilee Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Negev and the Galilee Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government approved on Sunday the creation of a new body to ease the path toward legalizing about 70 illegal outpost settlements in the West Bank, in line with coalition promises to its far-right parties.

Negev, Galilee and National Resilience Minister Yitzhak Wasserlauf said in a statement that with his “young settlement” department, he will “work to regulate the young settlements and establish the infrastructure” necessary to hook up these unauthorized communities to water and electricity.

It was not immediately clear what the new office’s specific powers will be, and how they may overlap with other state organs.

Successive Israeli governments’ attitudes toward illegally established Jewish communities throughout the West Bank have been complicated. They have sought to evacuate some while turning a blind eye and even tacitly supporting others. The new government is seeking to retroactively legalize dozens of such communities, and the new department appeared to be focused on them.

However, Sunday’s decision appeared to be the first time a government — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hardline coalition — has formed a department specifically designed to back activity that Israeli law deems illegal.

Additional powers will also be established under the freshly rebranded ministry, including pouring resources into migrant-heavy areas in Tel Aviv and promoting development in the southern city of Beersheba, in line with party promises to improve security and aid the Negev and Israel’s so-called periphery — areas remote from its economic centers.

The new West Bank-focused department may be part of an effort to lay the foundation for government authorization of the various unauthorized settlements, in line with promises secured by Itamar Ben Gvir, chief of Wasserlauf’s Otzma Yehudit party, from Netanyahu when coalition deals were signed.

Otzma Yehudit campaigned on pledges to strengthen internal security and governance, and strongly supports of Jewish settlement across both sovereign Israel and the West Bank. Along with far-right running mate Religious Zionism, Otzma Yehudit secured coalition agreement to increase the Jewish population in the Negev and Galilee, which are also home to many of Israel’s Arab citizens.

Only five weeks into its tenure, Netanyahu’s government has yet to make meaningful strides toward fulfilling its significant promises to increase settlement. Meeting his first significant security test in a pair of Jerusalem terror attacks in late January, National Security Minister Ben Gvir is searching for ways to increase governance, especially in areas under Wasserlauf’s purview.

MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party and activists protest in support of the deportation of Asylum seekers in southern Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In addition to receiving a mandate to work on unauthorized settlements, the Negev and Galilee Ministry also received powers to address communities facing a high number of asylum seekers or illegal migrant workers. Wasserlauf said that “tens of millions of shekels will be budgeted” for the “rehabilitation” of communities affected by “infiltrators.”

“Infiltrator” is a common government and military term for persons who illegally cross into Israel, often through its more than 200-kilometer-long land border with Egypt.

Tel Aviv’s southern neighborhoods have become home to many African migrants and asylum seekers.

During the election campaign, Ben Gvir protested in south Tel Aviv against asylum seekers and migrants, claiming that he would defend the area’s Jewish residents.

“The residents of south Tel Aviv deserve economic, social justice and personal security. We must not abandon the residents who have been harmed for a long period of time due to the concentration of illegal infiltrators within their residential areas,” said Wasserlauf on Sunday, after receiving approval from the government to engage in neighborhood rehabilitation.

Responding to the announcement of the cabinet’s decision, which has yet to be implemented, Wasserlauf said that he “will work to increase the number of residents in the Negev and the Galilee by promoting growth engines and national projects, increasing the sense of personal security and strengthening national resilience.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, center-left, confronts hecklers in Gedera, hours after a woman reported she was raped in the southern city, February 3, 2023. (Flash90)

The ministry is slated to receive powers and units transferred from the Social Equality Ministry and Agriculture Ministry, in line with a number of other inter-ministry shake-ups by Netanyahu’s government. The Knesset approved these shifts to the Negev and Galilee Ministry on Monday.

From the Social Equality Ministry, Wasserlauf will receive powers and units connected to the Young Adults Authority and the Division of Senior Citizens, in order to help promote their welfare in far-flung communities.

From the Agriculture Ministry, he will receive an authority responsible for agricultural, settlement, and town planning and development. A statement from the minister’s office said that it will operate “in accordance with the law applicable in the region.” It is unclear how this authority may overlap with the Civil Administration, responsible for West Bank building and construction and currently the subject of a tug-of-war between Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (Likud) and the second minister in his ministry, Religious Zionism party chief Bezalel Smotrich.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) (Yonatan Sindel; Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In addition to Smotrich and Wasserlauf, Religious Zionism’s Orit Strock is the national missions minister, overseeing a repackaged Settlements Ministry. Per coalition agreements, Netanyahu will retain discretion as to when may be appropriate to pursue West Bank annexation, a plan that may be on ice as long as the prospect of deepening Abraham Accord relationships with Israel’s new and prospective Muslim partner nations remains on the table.

In line with an Israeli government resolution from 1996, legal settlements require that the defense minister authorize the allocation of land for West Bank construction and that a committee in the Civil Administration responsible for authorizing construction plans in the territory be convened to approve the planning and construction process.

Many West Bank settlements were established in the 1990s and early 2000s with the assistance of different ministries, including the Housing Ministry, Defense Ministry and Energy Ministry, but without formal approval from the government.

Some of these unauthorized settlements are now well-established communities but have not formally been eligible for security assistance, or to be connected to water, electricity and other infrastructure, since they never received formal authorization from the government. Up until now, many of these settlements have relied on the municipal authorities of nearby authorized settlements to extend their services to them.

In recent years supporters have come to call illegal outposts and settlements “young settlements,” likely in part to help them shed their illegitimate image.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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