West Bank authority transfer to far-right minister may lead to ‘explosive situation,’ experts say

The Israeli military has quietly transferred significant legal powers in the West Bank to civil servants working for far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

For more stories from The Media Line go to themedialine.org

On May 29, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) issued an order transferring responsibility for dozens of bylaws at the Civil Administration, which governs the West Bank, from the military to officials led by Smotrich at the Defense Ministry.

In a recording released by The New York Times on Friday, Smotrich detailed his plan to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state and further empower West Bank settlers. “It will be easier to swallow in the international and legal context, so that they won’t say we are doing annexation here,” he stated.

Smotrich has long pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex the entire West Bank if the Palestinian Authority (PA) continues its efforts for international recognition of a Palestinian state. The Religious Zionism party leader also claimed, “Netanyahu is with us all the way,” though the prime minister has not confirmed this.

“[Benny] Gantz and [Gadi] Eisenkot’s recent resignations [from the War Cabinet] opened the way more for Smotrich to say what he wants,” Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and the Misgav Institute, told The Media Line. “Netanyahu is stuck right now with Smotrich and Ben Gvir to maintain his role as prime minister, but I doubt that he will allow them to do more than talking,” he added.

(L-R) National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (credit: FLASH90)

Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Dayan Center, warned, “Smotrich is jeopardizing the overall image of Israel. He is pushing to dismantle everything that was brought with the Oslo Accords, and he will also worsen PA-Israel relations by instigating settlers to gain more power. This will lead to an explosive situation.”

Escalating challenges in the West Bank

Since the war between Hamas and Israel began, the situation in the West Bank has deteriorated. Iran has succeeded in smuggling weapons and explosives to terrorist groups in the area to foment unrest. 

Several terrorist networks are operating in refugee camps in the West Bank, most of which are connected to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, Iran’s proxies, according to Michael. Since the PA is incapable of dismantling them, despite Israeli and Jordanian efforts, it is easy to smuggle weapons from Syria and Lebanon into Jordan, and then into the Jordan Valley, which is 15 minutes away from the West Bank city of Jenin.

The PA’s economy is at risk of collapse. Since the outbreak of the war, 150,000 Palestinians who previously worked in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in Israel have lost their jobs due to Israel’s ban on most Palestinian laborers. Only 15,000 Palestinians can still work in West Bank settlements.

Milshtein criticized the policy, stating, “The average Palestinian worker is prohibited from entering Israel, but the settlers are allowed to employ them. From Smotrich’s point of view, it is more important to promote settlers than the national ban imposed.”

Kobi Michael explained that workers are only allowed to work in factories near settlements where security forces can control the area. “Meanwhile, when 150,000 workers come, it is difficult to monitor each one of them, and Israel clearly doesn’t want to risk it,” he continued.

“I think that this policy is hypocritical,” said Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, the former head of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a Defense Ministry unit tasked with managing civilian policy in the West Bank and facilitating logistical coordination between Israel and Gaza.

“Palestinian workers should be allowed gradually to go back to work in Israel under new security regulations. Forty percent of Palestinians find themselves unemployed, meanwhile, Israel is not able to substitute this workforce,” Dangot, who also previously served as military secretary to three former Israeli defense ministers, told to The Media Line.

Rising settler violence and political instability in the West Bank

Since the war broke out, Israeli settler violence has increased in the West Bank, mainly due to a division of power between COGAT’s military and civilian departments. According to Dangot, this division has reduced COGAT’s role in the West Bank, giving more power to Smotrich’s people.

“COGAT combined both civil and military activities in the West Bank under one commander. As a COGAT ex-general, I can say that this division is creating chaos. It was adapted to [fit] Smotrich’s goals of constructing new illegal houses and deciding what should be demolished as well,” he stated.

Dangot stated that the next government should cancel all decisions made by Smotrich and revert to the previous situation. “COGAT’s hands are tied today because it has lost one of its main responsibilities. At present, we have two separate ministers for the West Bank: one in charge of security and the other of civil policy. This is a threat to the future,” he added.

He warned that inaction by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the current Netanyahu government could further destabilize the West Bank.

“Smotrich’s plan is the cherry on top of the current chaotic situation in the West Bank. If these far-right plans go further, what will happen in the upcoming months will be explosive, much worse than an intifada. This will drag Israel into a third war front,” he said.

Giorgia Valente is a recent graduate of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.