Israel moves a step closer to officially annexing the West Bank

Illustration - In-depth - Annexation
5 min read
04 July, 2024

Israel's Civil Administration, the governing military body in the West Bank, quietly transferred power in May to a civilian official under far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich - sparking fears Israel is solidifying annexation of the occupied Palestinian territory.

Smotrich's Settlements Administration will now be in charge of everything governing civilian life in the occupied West Bank, including building regulations, agriculture, forestry, parks, and bathing locations.

The Civil Administration controls Area C of the West Bank, a largely rural region comprising 60% of the occupied Palestinian territory. Transferring legal powers from the military into civilian hands signals Israel’s 57-year military occupation of the West Bank isn’t temporary and the state is formally annexing the Palestinian territory.

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Analysts and international law experts have long argued the West Bank is under de facto annexation but not officially annexed.

“One threshold that marks the distinction between de facto and formal annexation is that military occupation means the occupied territory is essentially placed under military rule - implying it's temporary, that it's being administered separately from the governance of the occupying state,” Mouin Rabbani, a Palestinian-Dutch analyst, explained to The New Arab.

But with this change in power, Israel is - by definition - annexing occupied Palestinian territory by extending its civil law to the area and treating it as part of Israel.

“In the short-term, we will see the establishment of new settlements,” Mauricio Lapchik from Israeli activist group Peace Now said of the major consequences of this move.

These ramifications are already starting to emerge. Last week, Israel’s security cabinet retroactively legalised five settlement outposts in the West Bank. Outposts are Israeli settlements established without approval from the government, and therefore, illegal under Israeli law.

Israel is - by definition - annexing occupied Palestinian territory by extending its civil law to the area and treating it as part of Israel. [Getty]

Both settlements and outposts are illegal under international law. Additionally, Israel is set to approve more than 6,000 settler housing units in the West Bank this week.

“Palestinians in the West Bank will continue to be dispossessed, forcibly displaced, and victimised as Israel settlement expansion is entrenched and expanded,” Susan Akram, international human rights law professor at Boston University, told TNA.

However, experts also present an optimistic outlook on this development, suggesting it could result in Israel’s isolation and greater international pressure against the state.

“As time goes on […] people begin increasingly to look at the broader picture and recognise this is not just about Hamas and the Gaza Strip, but about Israel seeking to establish exclusive supremacy over the entirety of mandatory Palestine,” Rabbani told TNA. “And that is going to lead to increased opposition to Israel.”

Akram added this could also push countries to sanction Israel, as the likelihood of achieving a two-state solution is eradicated.

“More and more states will join in isolating Israel and there is quite likely to be global sanctions put in place against Israel in similar fashion as what took place to end the South African apartheid regime,” Akram said.

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Not only does the shift in power extinguish any chance of establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, but Peace Now argues it also risks jeopardising Palestinian and Israeli security.

“Building new settlements or legalising new outposts in the West Bank will request from the Israeli army to bring more soldiers to those areas,” Lapchik said, noting Israel doesn’t have the capacity to intensify its military presence in the West Bank amid an ongoing war on Gaza and looming war with Lebanon.

“We saw on the 7th of October, how many soldiers were protecting the settlements in the West Bank and how many soldiers were missing in the South in order to protect the Israeli communities within [Israel’s borders],” Lapchik said.

For Palestinians, the latest development will further restrict their freedom of movement within the West Bank as the settler population increases and settler-only roads multiply. Moreover, Israel will continue seizing Palestinian agricultural land for Israeli construction and farming, thereby weakening the West Bank’s economy.

“Palestinians will see that there is no future, no hope in this area and this will bring more violence, more friction, and more destruction,” Lapchik said.

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Smotrich's vision actualised

In 2017, Smotrich presented his solution for peace between Palestine and Israel in his Decisive Plan for Israel.

In this document, he rejected Palestinian statehood and called to expel Palestinians seeking self-determination. Instead, he advocated to accelerate settlement development from the Jordanian River to the Mediterranean Sea. Five years later, Smotrich secured a top government role and is now implementing his vision.

“We came to settle the land, to build it, and to prevent its division and the establishment of a Palestinian state,” Smotrich said during a June internal conference for his Religious Zionism party. “And the way to prevent this is to develop the settlements.”

Smotrich told conference participants that switching from military rule to governmental is integral to changing the DNA on the ground and completing annexation.

“The truth is that at first we thought of transferring it altogether from the Ministry of Defence. In the end, [we did it in a way that] it would be easier to swallow in the political and legal context, so that they wouldn’t say that we are now doing an annexation,” Smotrich told the audience in a leaked recording obtained by Peace Now.

As Smotrich is not-so-secretly annexing Palestinian territory, Palestinians like Jamal Juma, coordinator of Stop the Wall, a grassroots campaign against the Israeli-built wall separating the West Bank from Jerusalem, say, with a stroke of a pen, Israel is swiftly obliterating the rights Palestinians have long been fighting for.

“Smotrich is throwing - once and forever - the Palestinian state into the trash of history,” Juma said.

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum