west bank jenin israel military vehicle
Israeli military vehicles drive down a road during a raid in the occupied West Bank Jenin refugee camp Image Credit: AFP

With the world’s attention focused on Israel’s war on Gaza, now in its ninth month with no ending in sight, far-right minister in Benyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, Belazel Smotrich, is waging war on another front: The West Bank.

In a taped speech to Jewish settlers, made public this week, the ultra-nationalist Finance Minister spoke explicitly of his plan to annex the occupied West Bank by transferring legal authority to the settlers from the Israeli military.

“I’m telling you, it’s mega-dramatic,” Smotrich told the settlers. “Such changes change a system’s DNA.” The 9 June speech outlined Smotrich’s effort to take authority over the West Bank out of the hands of the Israeli military and turn it over to civilians working for Smotrich in the defense ministry, according to the New York Times.

The plan was implemented 18 months ago, and parts of it have already been incrementally implemented. “To deflect international scrutiny, the government has allowed the defense ministry to remain involved in the process,” Smotrich said, “so that it seems that the military is still at the heart of West Bank governance.”

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"International and legal context"

Since its occupation by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the country’s High Court has ruled that Israel’s control of the territory is a temporary military occupation and complies with international law.

That position was cemented partially under the Oslo Accords, even though Israeli politicians have argued that the West Bank is a disputed and not occupied territory. Its fate would be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

“It will be easier to swallow in the international and legal context,” Smotrich said. “So that they won’t say that we are doing annexation here.”

Basically, what Smotrich is hoping to achieve is a de facto annexation without spelling it out. The civilian authority that would take over would slowly spread Israeli law over the Palestinian territories.

Already, Area C in the West Bank, comprising about 60 percent of the total area under occupation and where the PA has no jurisdiction, has come under Israeli law through the joint policies of National Security Minister and ultra-religious figure Itamar Ben Gvir and Smotrich. It is sparsely populated by Palestinians, most of whom have been driven out through terror campaigns carried out by Jewish settlers.

According to Israeli figures, Area C (excluding East Jerusalem), which, along with Area B, has been under Israeli military control since June 1967, is home to roughly 400,000 Israeli settlers and approximately 300,000 Palestinians, who live in more than 500 residential areas located partially or fully in Area C.

Far-right ministers

Under both Smotrich and Ben Gvir, Israeli settlers are carrying out campaigns against Palestinians, especially against the villages bordering the Jordan Valley between Nablus and Ramallah. The goal is to annex the Jordan Valley and expel the Palestinian communities that live there.

Despite US and EU protests, Netanyahu has looked the other way as settler mobs continued to attack Palestinian villages and nomadic settlements to drive the indigenous population out. So far, such a campaign has been a resounding success.

Even Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, where the Israeli army has been carrying out daily raids, killing activists and innocent bystanders while destroying infrastructure like electricity poles and water networks, are now witnessing a voluntary displacement by residents to Palestinian cities.

Smotrich makes it clear that he aims to foil future drives to create a Palestinian state. As finance minister, he has adopted measures to deny the PA access to funds that Israel is supposed to deliver under Oslo. He and Ben Gvir openly discuss defunding the PA, which is becoming more likely daily.

Netanyahu is on board

Netanyahu is on board with his far-right partners’ plan. This week, he repeated his position against the establishment of a Palestinian state or handing responsibility for governing the Gaza Strip to the PA.

According to the New York Times, Smotrich said that Netanyahu was aware of the plan’s details, much of which was foreshadowed in a coalition agreement between their parties that allowed the prime minister to remain in power.

While the current US administration says it is against any Israeli move to annex the West Bank while supporting the two-state solution, it has done little to stop the Smotrich plan. It had imposed sanctions against settler leaders, as did the EU and the UK, but such steps did nothing to slow or derail the campaign to drive the Palestinians from their lands.

With Gaza now in ruins and Israeli military presence set to be there for a long time, it may be a matter of time before the PA collapses and the West Bank is eventually swallowed by Israel. The regional fallout from this will be massive as Palestinians’ struggle for a homeland and self-determination is derailed.

What comes next will be troubling to the region and the world.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.