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How Smotrich's West Bank plan actualises a second Nakba

How Smotrich's West Bank plan actualises a second Nakba
7 min read
22 March, 2023
Analysis: Israel's far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has been gifted the keys to the West Bank, an unprecedented concession that allows him to realise his 2017 manifesto to annex Palestinian territory and turn it into a Jewish theocracy.

Suffer under Apartheid, leave, or be killed.

This is the ultimatum given to Palestinians by Israel's Member of Knesset (MK) Bezalel Smotrich in his 2017 'Decisive Plan'. Six years later, that same blueprint acts as Israel’s official policy in the West Bank.

Then Vice-Chairman of the Knesset, now Finance Minister and Minister in the Defence Ministry, Smotrich’s rise is symptomatic of Israel's right-wing character, an essence emboldened by the Trump years of favour. Normalisation has smothered the ‘two-state solution’ and plans to annex the West Bank have hastened settlement expansion and attacks on Palestinians.

In a politics that relies on Palestinian punishment, each Israeli intrusion into Palestinian territory and violation of international law has thrust Smotrich and his Religious Zionist party closer toward cabinet positions.

Now kingmaker in Netanyahu’s fractious far-right coalition and ‘de facto overlord’ of Area C in the Occupied West Bank, the links between the government’s logic of “divine commandment” and the operational duties of the military have never been stronger, with Bezalel Smotrich waiting at their juncture.

First adopted by the National Union - the predecessor to the Religious Zionist party - at their annual congress in September 2017, Smotrich’s plan to eliminate Palestinian presence has two phases. The first is unrestrained settlement expansion.

The enterprise of illegal settlements in the West Bank has increased under every Israeli government, including throughout the peace processes of the 1990s. But the 500,000 settlers in the West Bank, the 200,000 settlers in Occupied East Jerusalem and the 16.1% expansion of the last five years are, for Smotrich, not enough.

Full annexation of the West Bank is needed to create what he calls, “a clear and irreversible reality [of Jewish theocracy] on the ground” and extinguish any “illusions of a Palestinian state”.

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"Smotrich's denial of Palestine’s right to self-determination is part of Israel's long-held plan to abolish the Palestinian before their rights are revoked. It also seeks to uproot any hope of a Palestinian state by accelerating what Azmi Bishara calls the 'Bantustanization' of the West Bank," explained Palestinian literary critic Antoine Shulhut to The New Arab.

"This is achieved by approving dozens of illegal outposts on private Palestinian land, enforcing demolition orders of Palestinian construction, and repealing the 2005 Disengagement Act that approved Israel’s so-called departure from Gaza and the northern West Bank," Shulhut added.

For Israel’s newly elected extreme far-right government, all are fair game. On 15 February 2023, the Knesset approved the first reading of a law that would revoke the Disengagement Act and re-populate the outpost of Homesh and settlements of Sa-nur, Gadim and Kadim in the northern West Bank.

Smotrich’s historic provocations - having been jailed for three weeks for allegedly planning to attack an Israeli motorway with 700 litres of gasoline in protest of the disengagement – are smudged across the bill.

Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir take part in the ultranationalist Flags March outside Damascus Gate in Occupied East Jerusalem. The highly provocative and often violent march is held every year on the anniversary of the 1967 Naksa. [Getty]

Welcome to Smotrichstan

Smotrich’s grip over Israel’s decision-making is reflective of ultra-nationalist influence in Israeli elections and the Religious Zionist's dominance in last December’s coalition discussions.

Buoyed by a 14-seat mandate that included Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, Smotrich returned to discussions demanding a frontbench position in either finance or defence. And unwilling to relinquish the possibility of government, Netanyahu helped realise his Finance Minister’s 2017 plan by gifting him Article 21 of the coalition agreement: the keys to the West Bank.

Millions of Palestinians are now at his disposal. Article 21 assigns Bezalel Smotrich “full responsibility” of Area C of the West Bank – an Oslo Accords delineation that makes up 60% of the West Bank and houses 300,000 Palestinians and 425,000 Israeli settlers – by placing the two military units in charge of the Palestinian occupation, COGAT and the Civil Administration, under Smotrich’s civilian control.

Tantamount to de jure annexation, Smotrich’s supplementary position in the Defence Ministry gives him control of building permits, planning laws, natural resources, and all movement of people and goods between Gaza, Israel and the West Bank. 

Given all major Palestinian cities in the West Bank – Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jericho - are surrounded by land designated Area C, the move makes it even harder for Palestinians to live, move, and fight their case in court.

Smotrich writes in the executive summary of his 'Decisive Plan' that, “there is only room for one expression of national self-determination west of the Jordan River: that of the Jewish Nation,” adding “any solution must be based on cutting off the ambition to realise the Arab national hope between the Jordan [River] and the Mediterranean.”

Now in government, Smotrich’s vision has been copied verbatim into the coalition’s Foundational Principles. “The Jewish people have the exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” with the Prime Minister leading, “the formulation and implementation of policy within the framework of which sovereignty will be applied to [to the West Bank].”

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This is the first time in Israel’s history that a coalition agreement has sanctioned the annexation of the Occupied West Bank. 

Today, Smotrich is accountable for Palestinian work permits, managing the West Bank’s 592 checkpoints, thwarting Palestinian construction in Area C, and ensuring the domination of the settlers over the Palestinians.

Flanked by openly racist Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and shielded by Netanyahu, Smotrich has all the resources needed to implement phase one of his 'Decisive Plan'.

As Dr. Honaida Ghanim, Director of The Palestinian Forum for Israeli Studies (MADAR), told The New Arab: "This is Bezalel Smotrich's golden hour. He does not intend to waste it."

Having annexed the West Bank and “victory through settlement”, the second phase of Smotrich’s plan gives Palestinians three ‘options’.

The first ‘option’, staying in the West Bank, necessitates Palestinians renounce their identity and surrender their right to statehood, a right that's enshrined in Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Under this Apartheid regime, Palestinians would be granted limited municipal authority, barred from voting in the Knesset, and refused citizenship.

The second ‘option’ for Palestinians is to join the 5.9 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNWRA after the ethnic dispossession of the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 Naksa. And for those that resist, or refuse to become a refugee, Smotrich offers a third ‘option’: to be “dealt with by the security forces with a strong hand under more manageable conditions for doing so.”

In a state that last year killed a record 146 Palestinians, including 54 children; arrested 7000 Palestinians, including 865 children; held 866 Palestinians in administrative detentions without charges or trial; demolished 960 Palestinian homes; and approved 4400 new illegal Israeli settlements, such machinations are somewhat intrinsic. Yet they do betray a more zealous, violent face Israel tries to camouflage.

As Israel’s far-right government exits its infancy, and its mask continues to slip, Netanyahu’s decision to appoint Smotrich seems to have backfired.

The two bedfellows have already clashed over settlements - Smotrich refusing to halt construction – and Netanyahu has forced Smotrich to rescind his comment that the Palestinian town of Hawara, the site of a settler-led pogrom, should be "wiped out".

Keeping Smotrich - a man that wants the separation of Jewish and Palestinian maternity wards, refers to human rights organisations as “existential threats” and calls the Palestinian people an "invention of the past century" - at bay has now become a major preoccupation for Israel's defenders.

Netanyahu's decision to open Pandora’s Box of Kahanism has brought unprecedented backlash over the Israeli government's ultra-nationalist character, especially the influence US-designated terrorists Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein have over cabinet members.

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But Hasbara cannot detract from electoral mandates. Nor can it hide the fact that, on Israel's proposed judicial reforms, Netanyahu and Smotrich are on the same page.

“Smotrich's plan is conditional on legislation that neuters the court, allows Members of the Knesset to ignore the court’s rulings and gives politicians the power to appoint judges. Each of these features are included in Netanyahu's plans and proves the two politicians are not as dissimilar as it might seem,” said Dr. Ghanim.

So as protests against Israel’s judicial reforms gain traction worldwide, and knowledge of Bezalel Smotrich’s designs become more apparent, whether Netanyahu formally sanctions Smotrich remains to be seen. But should that happen it will be Israeli self-preservation, not Palestinian protection, that dictates his decision.

Benjamin Ashraf is The New Arab's Deputy Features Editor. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies and a board member of Red Pepper's Admin Collective. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ashrafzeneca