Israel's far-right minister Smotrich given far-reaching and chilling settlement powers
Israel has granted far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich exclusive responsibility for settlement planning in the occupied West Bank, in a move likely to draw further outrage at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.
The decision means settlement planning processes will no longer need approval from the political level, which until recently involved the prime minister and the minister of defence.
Instead, almost complete power on deciding settlement construction in the occupied territory - considered illegal under international law - will rest in the hands of a politician known for his anti-Palestinian rhetoric and who himself lives in a settlement.
"This process will enable unrestricted construction in the West Bank, disregarding security and political considerations and perpetuating de facto annexation in the West Bank," the Israeli anti-settlement NGO Peace Now warned.
Earlier, the Israeli government advanced plans to build over 4,500 settlement units in various parts of the West Bank.
Smotrich, the leader of the extremist Religious Zionist Party, wields enormous political influence through his position as finance minister. He also holds a portfolio within the defence ministry in charge of civil administration, the body in the Israeli army that controls civilian affairs in the occupied West Bank.
Since January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right cabinet has approved more than 7,000 new housing units, most of them deep in the West Bank.
Last month, the Israeli news site Haaretz reported that Smotrich was preparing infrastructure plans to support an additional half a million Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The international community opposes Jewish settlements built on Palestinian land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.
On Monday, Palestinian Authority official Hussein Al-Sheikh received US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf. The State Department official will meet Israeli and Palestinian politicians during his visit to the Middle East.
Today, I received an American delegation headed by the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at the #US State Department, Mrs. Barbara Leaf. @SafiraLeaf
I called on the #American delegation to put pressure on the #Israeli government to stop all unilateral… https://t.co/Y2Kd8ycpR3
— حسين الشيخ Hussein AlSheikh (@HusseinSheikhpl) June 19, 2023
In response to the Israeli cabinet announcements, the US Department of State issued a statement critical of the new settlement plans.
The US is "deeply troubled" by the Israeli government's decision to advance settlement plans and "concerned by reports of changes to Israel's system of settlement administration that expedite the planning and approvals of settlements", the statement said.
"We call on the Government of Israel to fulfill the commitments it made in Aqaba, Jordan and Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt and return to dialogue aimed at de-escalation."
The Palestinian Authority - which exercises limited self-rule in parts of the occupied West Bank - said it would boycott a meeting of the Joint Economic Committee with Israel scheduled for Monday.
Israel's settlement plans in overdrive coincide with a relentless military campaign in the occupied West Bank which has claimed the lives of at least 170 Palestinians, including children.
On Monday, Smotrich urged "a broad operation" in the northern West Bank area as five Palestinians, including a child, were killed during an Israeli military raid in Jenin.
"The time has come to bring in air forces and armour and protect the lives of our warriors. I will demand an urgent meeting of the cabinet on the matter," Smotrich tweeted.
The Israeli army admitted that two of its soldiers and five Israel Border Police officers were injured during the raid when Palestinian fighters targeted an armoured personnel carrier with explosives.
During the raid, the Israeli army bombarded Jenin from the air for the first time in over 20 years as its soldiers retreated.
"IDF helicopters opened fire in order to assist in the extraction of our forces," the Israeli military tweeted.
In March, the Israel land authority issued tenders for new housing units in three areas in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
This flew in the face of commitments Israel made at a Sharm El-Sheikh conference on 19 March "to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for six months".
Also in March, the Israeli Knesset passed legislation allowing Israelis to enter and stay in four Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank evacuated in 2005 as part of the "Gaza Disengagement" plan, implemented during the tenure of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
At least half a million Jewish settlers live in 132 government-sanctioned settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. An additional 146 settlement outposts, built since the 1990s without Israeli government approval, dot the West Bank.
All settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are illegal under international law.