Far-right Minister Bezalel Smotrich is reportedly advancing a plan to legalize 155 wildcat outposts throughout the West Bank, capitalizing on his control of both the Finance Ministry as well as settlement affairs within the Defense Ministry.
The plan is said to map out all of Israel’s illegal outposts beyond the Green Line, with the goal of eventually legalizing all of them. To legalize the outposts built on private Palestinian land, Smotrich aims to either have them transferred to what Israel views as state land or apply alternative legal mechanisms that would allow them to remain in place.
Smotrich is starting with 14 illegal outposts that he is working to legalize, Channel 12 reported on Friday, apparently referencing the wildcat communities that the government voted to legalize at the beginning of the year, drawing a rare rebuke from the UN Security Council.
Five of the 14 outposts are known as agricultural farms — ranches that radical settlers often use to take over large swaths of land with limited manpower, intimidating nearby Palestinians in the process through the use of threats and violence.
In terms of geographics, Smotrich’s plan will focus first on legalizing outposts in the northern and central West Bank before taking care of wildcat communities in the South Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley. The plan will see the offices he controls in the Finance Ministry and the Defense Ministry allocate millions in funding to the outposts in addition to building access roads to the communities and connecting them to the power and water grids. He is using contractors he knows to power the projects forward, the TV report said.
While most of the international community considers all Israeli construction in the West Bank to be 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, albeit often with tacit support from the government.
“All this is being done behind the government’s back. He’s seizing the opportunity. If there was a different finance minister, the moves would be stopped. Since he wears both the Treasury and Civil Administration hats [in his role as a minister in the Defense Ministry], he can act without any constraints,” an unnamed source told Channel 12.
“This is dramatically heightening tensions with the Palestinians, and a confrontation is expected with the United States over this as well,” a security source told the channel.
Upon establishing the new government on December 29, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Smotrich to the two senior posts, despite concerns that granting the pro-annexationist Religious Zionism chair control over such crucial arenas relating to the settlements would risk upending Israel’s ties to the US along with the rest of the international community, which still backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On Thursday, Channel 12 reported that Smotrich will next week seek government approval for a plan that would allocate $180 million to settlements and outposts.
The money includes millions for services like health, education and youth clubs, but also large amounts for promoting and expanding Israel’s civilian footprint in the West Bank, including NIS 92 million ($24 million) in discretionary funding to be used at will, according to Peace Now, which said it received an advance copy of the proposal.
The proposal would funnel NIS 27 million ($7.1 million) to illegal outposts, some of which are unauthorized expansions of existing settlements, Peace Now said. Another NIS 28 million ($7.4 million) is allocated for settlements deep in the West Bank, and some settlements designated in the periphery will get part of another NIS 40 million ($10.5 million) for infrastructure upgrades and NIS 15 million ($4 million) to renovate buildings for Jewish studies.
The total, which is nearly 10 times the budget earmarked for settlements in 2016 according to the watchdog, jibes neatly with Religious Zionism’s agenda of expanding settlements and tightening Israel’s hold on the West Bank, making the possibility of a viable two-state solution impossible, according to observers.
The treasury chief, and the government at large, have been accused of affording extra resources to settlers and the ultra-Orthodox, constituencies that largely back Netanyahu’s governing coalition. The benefits have come at the expense of the general public, critics charge.