RAMALLAH: Palestinians have expressed concern and outrage after a far-right Israeli cabinet minister was formally handed political responsibility for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which he has said he will use to bring their legal status into line with communities in Israel.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich was given a supervisory role in the Defense Ministry in matters relating to settlers, as part of his coalition deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
A 14-point statement issued by Smotrich, after he agreed on a division of responsibilities with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, included an assertion that “legislation on all civilian (settlement) matters will be brought into line with Israeli law.”
The agreement means Smotrich has the power to expand settlements, legalize outposts and demolish Palestinian homes.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “All settlement is illegal and any attempt by Israel to legalize or annex these settlements is rejected and is a violation of international resolutions.”
Mustafa Barghouti, secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, told Arab News: “Appointing Smotrich to this position, with these powers, means Israel annexing the West Bank and letting the settlers do whatever they want against Palestinians."
He said that Smotrich and another right-wing extremist politician, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, are now responsible for all the political mechanisms that affect the lives and property of Palestinians, including civil administration, internal security, settlement financing, control of Al-Aqsa Mosque, border guards, and Israeli prisons.
“This means declaring war on the Palestinians,” he added.
Shawan Jabarin, the director of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, told Arab News: “We have always said that Israel was annexing the West Bank, and now the official announcement of this annexation has come.”
More than 650,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and there are plans to increase the number to 1 million by 2030. Smotrich himself owns a house in the Kedumim settlement, east of Qalqilya. The Israeli settlements are concentrated in Area C, which constitutes about 60 percent of the West Bank.
Palestinians consider the settlements an existential threat because settlers often seize their land, livestock pastures and water resources by force. The spread of settlements along the length and breadth of the West Bank also undermines the 56-year dream of Palestinians for an independent and geographically contiguous state.
Palestinian political sources told Arab News that Israeli settlers, emboldened by Smotrich’s appointment, have escalated their attacks on Palestinians and their properties in the West Bank.
On Wednesday, the Israeli Higher Planning Council approved the construction of 1,000 settlement units in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, south of Bethlehem. On Friday, settlers uprooted 70 olive tree seedlings in Al-Khader, south of Bethlehem. They also destroyed agricultural infrastructure and uprooted fruit trees.
Also on Friday, Palestinians matching in protest against acts of terrorism by settlers were attacked by Israeli forces in the village of Ramon, east of Ramallah. One Palestinian was injured by a rubber bullet.
On the same day, settlers chased away Palestinian shepherds in an area east of Khirbet Al-Farisiya, in the northern Jordan Valley. Aref Daraghmeh, a human rights activist, said settlers attack shepherds almost on a daily basis and release their livestock onto agricultural land, causing significant damage and losses.