While the world’s attention has been riveted by the contentious judicial overhaul initiated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, another, more insidious transformation has been unfolding in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a prominent leader of the Jewish settlement movement, has seized unprecedented powers over the West Bank, further cementing Israeli occupation over the region and prolonging the suffering of Palestinians.
Smotrich, in his coalition agreement with Netanyahu, has orchestrated a series of moves that tighten the Israeli grip on the West Bank, creating an ominous impression that the Israeli occupation is becoming permanent. His actions include the rapid approval of thousands of new settlement units, the retroactive legalization of unauthorized wildcat outposts, and measures that restrict Palestinian construction and movement. These changes amount to a grim acknowledgment that the Israeli military occupation is evolving into something far more entrenched and oppressive.
A Point of No Return?
Ilan Paz, former head of the Israeli Civil Administration, has chillingly warned that if Smotrich retains his position for four years, we may reach a point of no return. This dire prophecy underscores the urgency of the situation and highlights the need for international attention and intervention.
Netanyahu’s willingness to appease pro-settler lawmakers like Smotrich to maintain political power has paved the way for these concerning developments. The creation of a new Israeli settler agency, led by Smotrich, within the Israeli Defense Ministry, marks a significant departure from the military’s previous obligation to consider the well-being of the occupied population. Instead, it shifts the focus to advancing Israeli interests, putting the lives and rights of Palestinians on the line.
Smotrich’s Troubling Vision
Smotrich’s vision is deeply troubling; he seeks to double the Jewish settler population, expand infrastructure, and obliterate any remaining distinctions between life for Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and those in lands occupied in 1948. In the process, he hopes to extinguish Palestinian aspirations for independence. As finance minister, Smotrich now holds the power to allocate taxpayer funds to West Bank infrastructure projects, with the 2024 budget allocating an unprecedented $960 million for a highway network that further connects 1948-lands to the occupied West Bank.
The consequences of Smotrich’s policies are already dire. Palestinian suffering has intensified, violent settler attacks have surged, and the Israeli government’s relationship with the international community has become increasingly strained. The international consensus that these settlements are illegal is now more pressing than ever, and recent developments only underscore the urgency of addressing this injustice.
A Bleak Future for Palestinians
Smotrich’s new settler agency has prioritized demolishing Palestinian construction built without Israeli permits, with COGAT, the military body overseeing the Civil Administration, rejecting over 95 percent of Palestinian permit requests. Palestinian communities are facing expulsion, and they are more vulnerable than ever, as illegal settler attacks continue to escalate. The sense of impunity among these settlers, fueled by the government, is deeply concerning and poses a grave threat to Palestinian lives and well-being.
Smotrich and his allies are determined to expedite settlement construction by reducing the approval process, facilitating further expansion. The Religious Zionist party, led by Smotrich, has proposed allocating $180 million for renovations and the construction of new hospitals and schools within the illegal settlements. Additionally, multimillion-dollar bypass roads are being built to make it easier for Israeli settlers to move around Palestinian towns, exacerbating tensions and worsening the plight of Palestinians.
Smotrich’s policies, coupled with the sidelining of security measures, have further destabilized the situation. The recent incident where Israeli authorities sealed Palestinian water sources, an essential lifeline, is a glaring example of the disregard for human rights and basic necessities.
The situation is dire, and it is time for the world to stand with the Palestinians. The Israeli relentless occupation and the actions of Smotrich threaten to undermine any hope for a just and lasting resolution to the Palestinian issue. The international community must apply pressure to bring an end to this injustice and to ensure a future that respects the rights and dignity of Palestinians. The time for action is now, as the status quo is unsustainable and unjust.