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‘De facto annexation’: Israel approves flashpoint West Bank settlements

Smotrich-led initiative also imposes fresh punitive measures on the embattled Palestine Authority
Israeli settlers hold a protest march to the outpost of Evyatar, in the occupied West Bank, 10 April 2023 (Reuters/Nir Elias)
Israeli settlers hold a protest march to the outpost of Evyatar, in the occupied West Bank, 10 April 2023 (Reuters/Nir Elias)

The Israeli government has approved five flashpoint settlements in the occupied West Bank and imposed additional punitive measures against the Palestine Authority (PA). 

The decisions made Thursday night by the security cabinet include seizing some of the PA’s limited civilian authority in the so-called "Area B" of the West Bank. 

Far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who pushed for the moves, said they came in response to PA legal action against Israel at international courts, and the recent recognition of Palestine's statehood by five European countries. 

“These are steps that protect the state of Israel and convey a clear message - we will never establish a terrorist state in the land of Israel!” Smotrich said on social media platform X, referring to the Palestinian aspiration of establishing part of their future state in the West Bank. 

The PA’s foreign ministry “strongly condemned” the decision and expressed “deep concern” over the “continued settlement expansion and consolidating of the apartheid regime,” according to Wafa news agency. 

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Peace Now, an anti-settlement Israeli NGO, said the decision was “reckless” and “undermines security, national interest, and relations with the United States”. 

“Instead of worrying about the abandoned residents of the south and the north, the settler government gives a prize to criminals at the height of the war to satisfy Smotrich, who is collapsing in the polls,” the group said. 

'This annexation will harm the security of our citizens, the future of our children, and will bring about the end of the Zionist dream'

- Yair Golan, Labor party

“This is an illegitimate government that lost the faith of the people a long time ago and is being managed by a messianic, extremist minority that has to get out of our lives.” 

Yair Golan, leader of the opposition Labor party, said the measures practically amount to “de facto annexation” of the West Bank. 

“This annexation will harm the security of our citizens, the future of our children, and will bring about the end of the Zionist dream,” he said on X. 

Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal under international law. 

Despite this, more than 700,000 settlers live in over 200 settlements and outposts across the Palestinian territory.

West Bank annexation  

The five outposts approved to become formal settlements on Thursday are Evyatar near the Palestinian city of Nablus, Sde Efraim and Givat Asaf near Ramallah, Havat Nahal Heletz near Bethlehem and Adorayim near Hebron. 

Outposts are Israeli settlements established informally by settlers without prior approval from the government. They are often formalised a few years after establishment. 

One of those outposts, Evyatar, was established in May 2021 on Palestinian land in Jabal Sabih, south of Beita village in the Nablus governorate. 

Following relentless Palestinian protests against the land grab, the government struck a deal with settler leaders that saw dozens of settlers evacuated from the outpost in July of that year, leaving a military presence in the area. 

Far-right and pro-settler leaders, including Smotrich, had vowed repeatedly to return settlers to the outpost. 

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On Thursday, they celebrated the latest security cabinet measures, calling it “a strong message of victory”. 

“We have stopped turning the other cheek,” said Orit Strock, a prominent pro-settlement leader and the minister of settlements and national projects. 

In addition to formalising the five outposts, the security cabinet expanded some of the existing settlements. 

This comes following admission last month by Smotrich that Israel was advancing a plan to annex the West Bank “without the government being accused of annexing it”. 

The plan, which involves imposing permanent Israeli rule in the West Bank, was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Smotrich. 

In February 2023, Israel transferred large sections of the West Bank's administration from the military to Smotrich, who in addition to being finance minister also serves as a minister in the defence ministry. 

Under the new arrangement, Smotrich was given broad authority over civilian issues in the West Bank, in a move experts say amounts to "de jure annexation". 

These include powers over unlicensed settler outposts, settlement planning, and construction, and authority to appoint officials in the Civil Administration - Israel's governing body in the West Bank. 

The move means a shift from Israeli military governance, which has been the norm since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, to civilian political administration. 

Israel has never formally annexed the West Bank, and even if it did, its status would nonetheless remain defined by international law as a "temporary military occupation".

Moves to entrench Israeli control in the West Bank come as soldiers and settlers escalate house demolitions and violence against Palestinians.

Since 7 October, Israeli authorities have demolished, confiscated, or forced the demolition of over 1,000 Palestinian structures in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, displacing around 2,250 people, according to UN figures.

PA funds 

The decision on Thursday imposed a series of punitive measures against the PA. 

Those include restrictions of movement on PA officials, including their freedom to exit the West Bank and “enforcement action against incitement” by Palestinian officials.

Israel will also transfer “enforcement powers” from the PA to Israel in parts of Area B of the West Bank, which ought to be under the civil administration of the PA according to the terms of the 1993 Oslo Accords. 

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According to Israeli media, Smtorich agreed to release some of the PA’s frozen funds in return for the cabinet agreeing to these measures. 

Smtorich, in his capacity as finance minister, had for months refused to release tax revenue owned by the PA but collected by Israel.

He also agreed to extend a critical waiver for Israeli banks to transact with Palestinian banks, which was set to expire on 1 July. 

Experts have said in recent months the PA was facing a financial crisis due to punitive measures imposed against it by Israel. 

Israel’s security apparatus has been reportedly warning that steps taken by Smtorich could cause the PA’s collapse.

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