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US views Smotrich control over West Bank as move toward annexation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised the far-right minister sweeping control of the occupied West Bank
Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right Israeli lawmaker and leader of the Religious Zionism party, speaks during a rally with supporters in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, 26 October 2022 (AFP)

The Biden administration has equated any transfer of civilian authorities in the occupied West Bank to Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich as a step toward annexation, according to Axios.

US officials warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against following through on a government coalition agreement that would give Smotrich control over administration in the region, Axios reported on Friday.

Smotrich is head of the Religious Zionism political alliance which helped bring Netanyahu back to power in elections last year.

His special post regarding the occupied West Bank would give him authority over building permits in settlements, demolitions of Palestinian homes, and land issues. He is also set to oversee two military units in charge of running civilian and security affairs in the region.

US concerns

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The US has said it will oppose any steps that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including, illegal settlement expansion, moves toward annexation of the West Bank, and disruption to the historic status quo of holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the occupied West Bank and Israel last month, leaving behind Barbara Leaf, the assistant US secretary of state for Near East Affairs to liaise with Israeli and Palestinian officials to diffuse rising tensions.

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According to Axios, Leaf expressed the Biden administration’s concerns about Smotrich’s potential post to Israeli officials, saying that it could complicate the situation in the occupied West Bank amid rising tensions.

Israeli military and defence officials told Leaf they highly objected to the transfer, Axios said, citing unnamed US and Israeli officials. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant also opposes the move.

Tensions in the region are running high. Israeli forces have killed 42 Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem this year so far.

In 2022, at least 220 people died in Israeli attacks across the occupied territories, including 48 children. At least 167 were from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Meanwhile, 30 Israelis have been killed, including one child, the highest death toll since 2008.

Greater violence

The renewed Israeli violence comes as the military increases operations in the West Bank and Palestinian armed resistance is resurgent.

CIA director William Burns warned this month that violence in the region was beginning to resemble the Second Intifada.

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"The conversations I’ve had with Israeli and Palestinian leaders left me quite concerned about the prospects for even greater fragility and even greater violence between Israelis and Palestinians," Burns said during an interview at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Washington on Thursday. 

The Second Intifada was a Palestinian armed uprising against the Israeli occupation, sparked by the provocative incursion into al-Aqsa Mosque by then-leader of the opposition, Ariel Sharon, in 2000. 

In the aftermath, Israel launched a military offensive in the West Bank to clamp down on Palestinian resistance and attacks that involved a series of deadly suicide bombings in Israeli cities.

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