Israel-Hamas War in Gaza: Latest Updates

Israel is putting key responsibilities in the occupied West Bank under an administrator who answers to a hard-line government minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who favors annexation of the territory, in what analysts and human rights activists describe as the latest step toward the far right’s aim of expanding Israeli settlements there.

The administrative move has been a longtime goal of Mr. Smotrich, the finance minister and settler leader, and increases his formal authority over many areas of civilian life, including building and demolition permits, a crucial tool for settlers who view construction as a way to strengthen their grip on the West Bank.

It is the latest of several changes over the past two years that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, has made to the way that the West Bank is ruled. Since early 2023, the government has eased the planning process for new settlements and gradually transferred more powers from the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, to Mr. Smotrich, a longtime settler activist who wants to prevent the possibility of creating a Palestinian state in the territory.

The moves stop short of fully placing the West Bank under civilian control, and they have limited effect in the 40 percent of the West Bank that is administered by the Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous Palestinian-run body. But critics say that they collectively take Israel a step closer to annexing the territory in all but name.

For decades, Israel has defended its control of the territory there by saying that it is a temporary military occupation since the 1967 war that complies with the international laws applicable to occupied territories, rather than a permanent annexation that places the West Bank under the sovereign control of Israel’s civilian authorities. But the empowerment of Mr. Smotrich, a civilian minister, tests that argument to its limits.

The latest move, which creates a civilian head of an area previously overseen only by the military, was finalized by the Israeli military on May 29, according to copies of two military orders seen by The New York Times. It names a deputy head of the civil administration in the West Bank who will answer to Mr. Smotrich, an ultranationalist member of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition who has a broad portfolio in the West Bank.

Settlers like Mr. Smotrich want to build more Israeli settlements across the West Bank on land that Palestinians hoped would be the core of a future Palestinian state. While previous Israeli governments and generals have built and protected hundreds of settlements, the latest order would likely accelerate that process, analysts and activists said.

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, center, has gained new authority over Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the development of settlements.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Critics have already accused the government of failing to clamp down on illegal settlement construction and violence committed by settlers, and of thwarting measures to enforce the law.

Since the war began in October, the government has cracked down on the territory with near-daily military raids it says are aimed at terrorists. The government has also emboldened settlers and enacted new regulations that have put additional economic pressure on Palestinians.

“We are speaking about a change with a very clear political dimension to permit all kinds of plans for building settlements very quickly and without any obstacles,” said Michael Milshtein, an author and expert in Palestinian studies at Tel Aviv University.

The military has for decades been responsible for civil administration in most of the West Bank as well as for security, and critics say the shift to civilian administration, a longstanding aim of Mr. Smotrich, ties decision-making more closely to Israeli domestic politics. Analysts noted, however, that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant would retain input and could block certain measures.

Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at Ir Amim, an Israeli nongovernmental organization, said that the order was “historic,” because “for the first time you have in a formal way management in the West Bank that is not done through the army but through the Israeli civil political system.”

The civilian political influence over the military administration already existed to some extent, though it was hidden from view, he said, “but now it’s stopped playing the games.”

A spokesman for Mr. Smotrich did not respond to a request for comment.

The person named to fill the new administrative post, Hillel Roth, is a settler and a member of the religious nationalist community who will likely act to facilitate Mr. Smotrich’s agenda, analysts said.

Mr. Milshtein noted that Mr. Smotrich had separately aimed to weaken the Palestinian Authority, which administers some parts of the West Bank. Mr. Smotrich announced in May that Israel would withhold revenue from the authority, worsening its severe fiscal crisis. In June, Mr. Smotrich said that he had ordered about $35 million in tax revenue that Israel collected on behalf of the authority to be diverted to the families of Israeli victims of terrorism.

Since Israel occupied the West Bank, previously controlled by Jordan, in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the government has encouraged Jews to settle there, providing land, military protection, electricity, water and roads. More than 500,000 settlers now live among 2.7 million Palestinians in the territory.

Most of the world considers the settlements illegal. Some Israeli Jews justify settlement on religious grounds, others on the basis of history — both ancient and modern — while some say Israel must control the territory to prevent armed Palestinian groups from taking power.

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.

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