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Settlers Are Already Executing Smotrich’s Plan to Annex West Bank, Residents Say

“They make it impossible for you to stay, they make your life miserable,” said Palestinian activist Issa Amro.

Israeli soldiers argue with a Palestinian man after an attack by settlers in the village of Burin, south of Nablus, in which Palestinian vehicles were burned and destroyed, on June 18, 2024.

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After working behind the scenes for months, members of the far right coalition propping up Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are moving to hand over control of the West Bank to civilian authorities close to Israeli settlers, some of whom believe they have a divine right to terrorize and displace their Palestinian neighbors.

Home to 3 million Palestinians who live between webs of checkpoints, road blockades and illegal settlements, Israel has for decades occupied the West Bank.

It’s no secret that Bezalel Smotrich, an extremist settler and powerful minister in Netanyahu’s government, is orchestrating the de facto annexation of the West Bank. This will facilitate the expansion of paramilitary outposts and Jewish-only residential colonies that even allies in the United States consider to be illegal under international law.

Like Palestinian residents of the West Bank, Haaretz warns that Smotrich’s plan has Netanyahu’s blessing and is underway “right now.” Smotrich appeared to confirm this on Sunday after details emerged of his plan to consolidate the Israeli settler movement’s control over the West Bank by transferring key governing powers from military officials to civilian administrators.

“Everything is on the table,” Smotrich said on social media.

Smotrich, a lifelong radical who lives in an illegal settlement, was recently caught on audio tape telling supporters that his “life’s mission is to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state.” In a speech during an internal conference of the Religious Zionism Party earlier this month, Smotrich explained that a “separate civilian system” is being formed to administer the West Bank while the Israeli military remains in charge on paper.

Smotrich is saying out loud what Netanyahu is trying to hide from the U.S. and the rest of the world.

“It would be easier to swallow in the political and legal context, so that people wouldn’t say that we are now doing an annexation,” Smotrich told supporters during the speech.

The plan will empower political allies to fuel settlement expansion, demolish Palestinian neighborhoods, and supply illegal outposts with government funding, according to legal analysis by Peace Now, the human rights group that released a recording of Smotrich’s speech.

The Israeli Supreme Court considers the West Bank to be under a temporary military occupation and ultimately subject to future negotiations with Palestinians. However, Smotrich outlined a process for transferring governance from the Israeli military to a civilian apparatus inside a ministry he controls. Critics say the plan will allow settlers to bypass the central government and legalize Israeli outposts in disputed territory while denying Palestinians access to crucial permits and even clean water.

“You do not feel safe, and you have no social life,” said Issa Amro, an activist in Hebron and founder of Youth Against Settlements, in an interview. “They force you to leave; they don’t evict you directly from your house physically, but they make it impossible for you to stay, they make your life miserable.”

Deadly attacks by settlers are often meant to scare Palestinian families away from their homes, according to reports.

Peace Now, which opposes illegal settlements and the displacement of Palestinians, said Smotrich is saying out loud what Netanyahu is trying to hide from the U.S. and the rest of the world. Peace Now called Smotrich’s de facto annexation plan a “blatant violation” of international law that will further entrench a violent and drastically unequal system in the 60 percent of the West Bank territory under direct Israeli occupation.

“Since the war began over two dozen new outposts have been established, and a similar number of Palestinian communities have been forcibly displaced,” the group said in a statement. “This illegal act of annexation makes clear that two legal systems are now officially at play: [one] for the Palestinians and one for Israeli settlers.”

Advocates for Palestinian rights say that Smotrich is simply codifying a longstanding effort by the settler movement to expand Israeli territory into Palestine and uproot the Indigenous inhabitants with impunity. Multiple human rights groups have confirmed apartheid conditions where Palestinians are living under Israeli occupation.

Last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said that the situation in the West Bank is “dramatically deteriorating,” with 528 Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers since October, including two American teenagers and dozens of innocent children. Deadly attacks by settlers are often meant to scare Palestinian families away from their homes, according to reports.

Like Smotrich and others in Netanyahu’s coalition, settler leaders call the territory Judea and Samaria and claim rights to the land based on Biblical teachings. Amro said Smotrich made a deal with Netanyahu to annex the West Bank when right-wing parties agreed to a ruling coalition in 2023 that allowed the prime minister to stay in office.

The question now is what, if anything, the Biden administration will do in response to de facto annexation of the West Bank.

“A new government came to power, and we saw more settler violence, much more settlement expansion, much more army brutality,” said Amro, a nonviolent activist known as the “Palestinian Gandhi” who has been harassed, threatened and detained by Israeli soldiers and settlers. “Unfortunately, October 7 came and Smotrich used that as an opportunity to speed up annexation of the West Bank.”

For Palestinians living under military occupation, even small acts of protest can result in jail time and raids on homes by Israeli troops. Thousands of Palestinians are arbitrarily incarcerated in Israeli jails under vague orders handed down by military judges at any given time, including an estimated 240 children from the West Bank alone. Amro said freedom of movement is extremely limited since October 7, with military checkpoints and main roads only open to settlers.

Tensions regularly lead to violence, but settlers have the might of the Israeli military on their side. Since October 7, Israeli forces and settlers have unleashed an unprecedented campaign of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group in the occupied territories.

“To be very honest, it’s working — many people are leaving,” Amro said.

The West Bank remains a major source of contention between the U.S. and Israel, with the U.S. asserting that expansion of illegal settlements further diminishes Israel’s international standing and creates barriers to peace talks as fighting with Hezbollah on the Jordanian border continues and the bloody crisis in Gaza drags on.

The question now is what, if anything, the Biden administration will do in response to de facto annexation of the West Bank.

The U.S. has placed financial sanctions on violent settlers as well as an armed Palestinian defense group in Nablus, but reports suggest the sanctions have only emboldened settlers under the leadership of Smotrich. The U.S. also recently sanctioned a militant Israeli group that has attacked humanitarian aid convoys headed to Gaza, where civilians are starving without shelter and more than 37,000 people have died under an Israeli siege.

Tensions between the White House and Israel reached a boiling point last week when Netanyahu surprised U.S. officials by lashing out over “bottlenecks” in deliveries of U.S. weapons to Israel. In order to avoid prosecution on corruption charges, the prime minister relies on the far right to stay in power and can be squeezed politically by his dwindling list of allies.

President Joe Biden is preparing for a debate with Donald Trump on Thursday, and the White House has said little about Palestine this week.

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