US calls Smotrich’s reported push to legalize outposts ‘dangerous and reckless’

State Department says administration will keep urging Israel not to fund wildcat settlements in West Bank, after report on far-right minister’s directives to support them

Israeli settlers and their children in front of a caravan in illegal West Bank outpost of Avigail in the Hebron Hills, May 25, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli settlers and their children in front of a caravan in illegal West Bank outpost of Avigail in the Hebron Hills, May 25, 2009. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Legalizing dozens of settler outposts in the West Bank would be “dangerous and reckless,” the US State Department said on Wednesday in response to reports that Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was working to do so.

The remarks came after Channel 12 News reported over the weekend that Smotrich, who also serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry, is pushing to begin the process of legalizing 68 illegal outposts in the West Bank.

“These reports about directives to support illegal outposts in the West Bank, we believe that to be dangerous and reckless,” US State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said in a daily briefing.

The US opposes the settlements and believes they violate international law, he added. Washington “will continue to urge Israeli officials to refrain from taking actions to fund outposts that have long been illegal under Israeli law,” the State Department spokesperson said.

According to the Channel 12 report, Smotrich, who in his Defense Ministry role has broad authority over civilian issues in the West Bank, has sent instructions to several ministries telling them to begin preparations for providing a variety of public services to such outposts after they are legalized.

The coalition agreement between the far-right, staunchly pro-settlement Religious Zionism party, which Smotrich heads, and the ruling Likud party requires the government to legalize the so-called young settlement outposts and to hook them up to their own electricity and water supply.

“Young settlements” is a euphemism for some 70 illegal outposts in the West Bank, now home to around 25,000 people, which were established in the 1990s and early 2000s with the assistance of different ministries but without formal approval from the government, meaning they are illegal under Israeli law.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Maariv economic conference in Tel Aviv, March 26, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In February 2023, the government approved the legalization of nine illegal outposts, which eventually became 10, and at the same time made arrangements that Smotrich said at the time would facilitate the legalization of the rest.

Israel has settled the West Bank extensively since 1967 when it captured the area from Jordan during the Six Days War, viewing it as the biblical Judea and Samaria and critical to Israel’s security. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promoted settlement growth, which the US has criticized.

The settlements take up West Bank land where Palestinians have long aimed to establish an independent state that would also include the Gaza Strip and have East Jerusalem as its capital.

Washington imposed sanctions on Friday on an ally of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and two entities that raised money for Israeli men accused of settler violence.

On Israel’s potential military offensive against Gaza’s Rafah, Patel said that Washington’s concerns have not yet been fully addressed.

“When it comes to military operation in Rafah, there needs to be a serious credible plan,” he said.

Israel’s military is poised to evacuate Palestinian civilians from Rafah and assault Hamas hold-outs in the southern Gaza Strip city, a senior Israeli defense official said on Wednesday, despite international warnings of humanitarian catastrophe.

Patel also said Washington was continuing to press Israel for more information on Hamas’s claims of mass graves in Gaza, which Israel has rejects as “baseless.”

File: US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel in a briefing, 2023. (Video screenshot)

The war erupted on October 7 when the Palestinian terror group Hamas led a devastating cross-border attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

Israel responded with a military campaign to destroy Hamas and free 253 hostages who were abducted by terrorists during the Hamas attack.

Relations between Israel and its closest ally the US have been a rollercoaster ride in recent months as Washington backs Israel’s right to defend itself and press the war against Hamas, but also leveling criticism over civilian deaths and humanitarian crisis caused by the fighting.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry has placed the Palestinian death toll since October 7 at over 34,000 people, although this figure cannot be independently verified and does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed some 13,000 Hamas gunmen in battle, as well as some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Two hundred and sixty one IDF soldiers have been killed since Israel launched the ground offensive in Gaza.

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