The left-wing activist organization Peace Now has warned that if the far-right Religious Zionism party achieves its desire for control of the Civil Administration — which directs aspects of civilian life in some 60 percent of the West Bank — it could lead to Israel’s “de facto annexation” of the territory.
In its coalition negotiations with presumptive incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, Religious Zionism is demanding that the Civil Administration agency be transferred from the purview of the Defense Ministry to the Finance Ministry.
Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, the intended finance minister, is eager to take control of the agency and advance his agenda of expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank and thwarting Palestinian aspirations for an independent state in the territory.
Smotrich sees control of the agency as a means of extending Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank, replacing the military administration of the territory with direct control by the central government and its ministries.
Critics have strongly denounced the prospect of such a move, saying it would amount to de facto annexation of Area C — the 60 percent of West Bank territory in which the Israeli settlements are located and where Israel maintains military and administrative control over both the Israeli and the Palestinian populations.
Despite its reported progress in negotiations with other prospective coalition partners, Likud’s talks with Smotrich have been bogged down in mutual accusations. Religious Zionism claims Netanyahu has gone back on promises and Likud accuses the far-right party of making exaggerated demands relative to its size.
In a lengthy statement to the press on Wednesday, Religious Zionism claimed that after Netanyahu requested Smotrich abandon his demand to be appointed defense minister, it was agreed that he would instead be made finance minister and in addition get responsibility over the Civil Administration.
According to the statement, Religious Zionism negotiators were later told, on Tuesday night, that Smotrich would not be given “full responsibility” over the Civil Administration.
Likud insisted in response that it had not, at any stage of the negotiations, agreed to transfer any government agencies to the Finance Ministry.
The Civil Administration is principally responsible for planning and construction in Area C of the West Bank, as well as enforcement against unauthorized construction, be it by Israeli settlers or by Palestinians.
In addition, the agency is responsible for civilian infrastructure such as paving roads and providing water and electricity.
There are some 491,000 Israelis living in the West Bank settlements, all of which are in Area C. Population figures for Palestinian residents of the area are not readily available, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to over 200,000.
The Civil Administration is an agency of the Defense Ministry under the auspices of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a department headed by IDF Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian.
Shaqued Morag, the executive director of the Peace Now organization, which opposes Israeli control of the West Bank, said that moving the Civil Administration out of the Defense Ministry and into another government department could, under certain circumstances, constitute de facto annexation of Area C.
If Smotrich puts the functions of the Civil Administration under the Finance Ministry, or any other ministry, it would constitute the assumption of control by Israel’s government of what was previously a military administration, said Morag.
The Religious Zionism party platform, in fact, calls for the abolition of the Civil Administration and the transfer of its authorities to relevant government ministries — a goal it says will be achieved through legislation.
The heading within its election manifesto dealing with this issue is entitled “De facto sovereignty: Shutting down the Civil Administration and the transfer of responsibility over the settlements in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] to government ministries.”
If the Civil Administration were left left intact but simply moved from the Defense to the Finance Ministry, then the situation would be largely unchanged. But if only the Civil Administration’s authority over Israeli residents of Area C were assumed by Israel’s central government while authority over the Palestinian population of the territory were to remain with the Civil Administration, such a regime would resemble apartheid, asserted Morag.
“Smotrich sees Area C as Israeli territory and he is going to implement his vision of Jewish supremacy there, meaning he will allow settlements to take Palestinian land and do everything in his power to suppress the minority of Palestinians living in Area C, meaning the de facto annexation of the territory,” she said.
“Annexing Area C means leaving Areas A and B [under Palestinian control] without territorial contiguity. This is a big threat to the viability of a two-state solution.”
The Religious Zionism party asserts that it is unreasonable for the more than 491,000 Israeli citizens living in the West Bank settlements to be subject to military rule, which causes significant complications to their lives, particularly when it comes to the construction of homes and expansion of settlements.