Israel’s coalition government, the most right-wing in the country’s history, has come under fire for proposing reforms that would weaken the judiciary and dismantle checks and balances. They provoked some of the biggest protests ever seen in Israel and were eventually put on hold after a tremendous international and domestic backlash. But another move by the government—a bureaucratic change that has hardly drawn any attention—is just as significant.
In November 2022, Israel’s far-right factions won a parliamentary majority. Soon after, they amended the Basic Law of the government, which acts in some ways like a constitution, to allow the government to appoint a special new minister within the Ministry of Defense. In February 2023, Israel’s ultranationalist coalition government agreed on what the new minister would do: assume certain civil authorities over life in the West Bank, which had previously been the exclusive purview of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). This administrative change equates to declaring Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, a violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition against territorial conquest. Three leading Israeli civil and human rights organizations have insisted that the bureaucratic shift amounts to the de jure annexation of the West Bank. The transfer shatters the illusion that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is temporary; it further entrenches an unequal, two-tiered legal system for Israelis and Palestinians; and it solidifies permanent Israeli control over the West Bank.
The transfer of authority is in fact the culmination of decades of policies that have guaranteed Israel’s hold on the Palestinian territories. But the government has now crossed a threshold that represents a momentous—and likely cataclysmic—transformation in Israel’s position with respect to international law. Israel now has no need to formally declare the annexation of the West Bank. The deed is done.
CIVILIAN FOR ME, BUT NOT FOR THEE
The change of occupation authority will affect the everyday lives of Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The civilian minister will lead a “settlement authority,” to manage the affairs of Jews, while Palestinians will remain under military control. The move cements superior status for settlers in the West Bank. For example, the IDF will continue to set water rates for Palestinians but the new civilian authority will control water for Jews, facilitating unequal water allocation for the two groups. The civilian authority will promote and authorize settlement and infrastructure for Jewish settlers, a fundamental violation of international law against establishing civilian rule in occupied territory. Having dispensed with the basic international prohibition, these new authorities will ignore all constraints of international law. The civilian minister will control land allocation and planning, energy, and communication frequencies. He will have the power to decide who can build homes, schools, and public structures, and which communities will be demolished—a formula to expand Jewish settlement and suppress Palestinian life, previously implemented by the IDF.
The consequences of the change are compounded by the ideology of the civilian minister chosen for the position. Bezalel Smotrich, who is also Israel’s minister of finance and leads the country’s most overtly Jewish supremacist party, demanded the role. He built his political career on anti-Arab racism. In 2017 he published a plan for the total subjugation of Palestinians to Israeli control, aiming to bury Palestinian national self-determination for good. He proposed a Jewish-dominated state encompassing all land west of the Jordan River, calling to exile or violently suppress those who resist. Smotrich said that Hawara, a Palestinian town in the West Bank, should be “wiped out.” The comment came days after a Palestinian attack killed two Israelis and Israeli settlers launched a pogrom on the town. His words effectively excused the vigilante attack and encouraged future ones. Smotrich has rejected the presence of the nearly two million Arab citizens of Israel; in 2021, he said it was a mistake that Israel’s first prime minister didn’t “finish the job” of expelling all Palestinians from the new Israeli state created in 1948.
Smotrich demanded to be the civilian minister as a condition of joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government; for several years he had led the charge to undermine IDF control over the West Bank. His new powers will affect Palestinians throughout the territory, since plans for settlements and other Israeli uses of the land are designed to upend Palestinian life. Smotrich can and will advance settlement plans that require denying the Palestinians there access to water, land, infrastructure, and development assistance from international agencies and companies. He can now snuff out the possibility of Palestinian livelihood in Area C—a zone that makes up 60 percent of the West Bank and encompasses all Israeli settlements in the territory. There are roughly 200,000–300,000 Palestinians living in Area C. Many subsist on farming or herding. Even today, Israeli authorities block permits for housing construction, demolish water wells, and raze schools; but now these decisions will be made by civilian leaders, who are ideological extremists. Israel’s right wing will seek to claim Area C entirely for Jewish settlers.
BIT BY BIT
To be sure, Israel has been inching toward the annexation of the West Bank, albeit in less obvious ways, for decades. On the one hand, Israel has established separate and unequal legal regimes in the territory, placing Palestinians (and theoretically, all occupied land) under military rule in an attempt to portray Israeli control as only temporary. At the same time, Israel has increasingly applied civilian laws to Jewish citizens, to attract more settlers, encourage “normal” life, and entrench Israel’s presence in the occupied land. In truth, Palestinians were never solely governed by the IDF. Israel created the image of a temporary occupation regime—separate from the state—as a ruse. The line between civilian and military control in the West Bank has been blurry since 1967.
Israel took control of the West Bank in the 1967 war, and within a year Israelis began establishing settlements there. Israel’s legislature became involved in the occupation almost immediately. By July 1967, the Knesset passed the first law applying the Israeli criminal code to its citizens in the West Bank—a first step toward bringing Israelis in the area under the jurisdiction of normal Israeli civilian law, even as Palestinians were subject to Israeli military law.
Between 1967 and 1981, the Israeli army directly managed the civilian and military affairs of the occupied territories. In 1981, the Israeli government established a civilian administration for the West Bank and Gaza under IDF command. But in practice, Israel’s government ministries ultimately governed Palestinian life indirectly, for example, by establishing economic policy, setting health regulations, and building roads. Over time, while the army carried out policy over Palestinians, special regulations enabled the civilian authorities to implement Israeli law for Jewish settlers, creating separate and different practices for Jews living in the occupied West Bank. Settlers benefited from national insurance, voting rights, and access to resources. But the legal authority that governed Jewish life in the settlements technically remained in the hands of the military.
Together, the civilian and military authorities managed not only people in the West Bank but also land. Through legal procedures implemented by both military and civilian bodies, backed by Israel’s civilian Supreme Court, Israel has acted as the owner of vast portions of land in the West Bank, which it uses for military purposes, agriculture, or settlements—anything but development for Palestinians.
In short, since about the end of the 1967 war, the three branches of the Israeli government have been engaged in the occupation. In the early years, it was not clear how long Israel’s occupation could last, but in hindsight, the neck-deep involvement of all arms of the Israeli state was a harbinger that Israel was in the West Bank to stay.
THERE ALL ALONG
Perhaps Israel’s annexationist designs should have been clear from the start. After all, it formally annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 (after effectively annexing it in 1967) and the Golan Heights in 1981, violating international law.
But Israel has been able to convince both the international community and itself that it was ruling the West Bank and Gaza through a distinct, reversible military regime. Israel has done so by playing up its history of removing settlements when needed. In 1979, Israel signed a breakthrough peace deal with Egypt, in which Israel relinquished control over the Sinai and dismantled its settlements in the peninsula. In 2005, Israel withdrew its settlements from Gaza, as well, after more than four years of the Palestinian intifada, a militant rebellion. These moves made Israel’s occupation and settlements appear reversible. But in both cases, Israel managed to ultimately cement its hold over the West Bank: peace with Egypt took pressure off Israel to relinquish the Palestinian territories. Withdrawing settlements from Gaza split the Palestinian leadership. Many Palestinians interpreted Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza as proof that militant strategies had worked, leading to Hamas winning elections in 2006 and taking over Gaza, while the West Bank remained governed by the Fatah Party. That rift, plus Israel’s near-hermetic sealing of Gaza, has torn Palestinian society apart—and helped freeze the peace process.
The peace process itself also allowed Israel to cast its occupation of the West Bank as temporary. In the 1990s, Israel began to signal its intention of ending military rule, but it clung to ambiguity as to what that meant: the Oslo accords of the 1990s never promised a Palestinian state or any final status arrangement that would have resolved Israel’s final borders, ended settlement expansion, determined the fate of Palestinian refugees from 1948, or addressed Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem. The accords merely outlined a process that would eventually deal with these concerns. By the time the Israeli government formally accepted the possibility of a Palestinian state in negotiations in 2000, the Oslo process was on the verge of collapse and the sides were a step away from war. Nevertheless, Israelis and their Western allies could tell themselves that Israel ultimately hoped to end its occupation of the West Bank. Now the new government has made clear its intentions for the territory—and ended Israel’s even nominal commitment to a two-state solution.
Why did the government transfer control over the West Bank to a civilian authority now? Ambiguity has served Israel well for decades. But far-right politicians in the current coalition government are heady with success after they won a firm parliamentary majority in November 2022, an opportunity they know might not come again anytime soon. They are driven by theocratic principles and obsessed with Jewish sovereignty. The true aim of their plans to eviscerate the judiciary is to remove the last obstacle to permanent Jewish supremacy over Palestinian people throughout the land. Indeed, they want to institute in Israel a more theocratic and autocratic form of governance in general. The reputation of Israel’s democracy is not their concern; they welcome the erosion of liberal democracy. Moreover, Smotrich and his allies long to liberate settlers from the inconveniences of life under ostensible IDF control. There is also a symbolic dimension to this transfer: for some settlers, being governed by the military and differently from Israeli citizens within the Green Line is a humiliation, a mockery of God’s plans for the Jews.
So far, the government’s gambit has worked. The world has been focused on the assault on Israel’s judiciary and on violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. But political leaders in the region and abroad can no longer escape the fact that Israel has built a permanent two-tiered system of control over all Israelis and Palestinians in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, as we and other colleagues have argued in Foreign Affairs. Israel’s allies must insist that Netanyahu’s coalition abide by international law. And Israelis must exert pressure, too. Many of them have already rallied to preserve Israel’s democracy from Netanyahu’s proposed reforms. But Israelis should also recognize that the transfer of authority over the West Bank—the de jure annexation of the territory—poses a bigger obstacle to democracy than anything else this coalition has done so far.
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