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Israel’s new settler governor

April 10, 2023 at 1:09 pm

Bezalel Smotrich [GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP via Getty Images]

In recent weeks, Israel’s finance minister Bezalel Smotrich drew lots of justified attention for some of his public statements, which is no exaggeration to say are genocidal in tone. First, he called for the Palestinian town of Huwara to be “wiped out” after settlers went on a violent rampage in the occupied West Bank. Then, while speaking at an event in France Smotrich effectively rehashed an old Zionist myth that denies the existence of Palestinians as a people. While focus is currently on the renewed Israeli violence on worshippers at Al-Alqsa Mosque, it is important to not lose sight of where further attacks on Palestinians are likely to emerge.

Besides his role as finance minister, Smotrich occupies a crucial governmental role which allows him to translate his words into practice. In fact, under the latest government coalition agreement between Religious Zionism and Netanyahu’s Likud, Smotrich was promised authority over some key functions in the administration of COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories)–the military-civilian administration that rules over both non-citizen Palestinians throughout the occupied territories and the Israeli settlers residing in Area C of the West Bank.

One of those functions was to appoint the new military general of COGAT, which usually falls under the authority of the Israeli army’s Chief of Staff and is then approved by the defence ministry. The agreement not only bypassed the Minister of Defence, Yoav Gallant, but also meant wrestling away from the military some authority and giving it instead to a government minister.

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Yet after strong opposition from Gallant, a compromise was reached last month. According to the terms of deal, Smotrich will have the authority to appoint a “Civilian Deputy” under the Head of the Civil Administration–an important military unit within COGAT responsible for civilian matters that have huge implications for both Palestinians and Israeli settlers. These include land registration, settlement construction, demolitions and infrastructure projects. In other words, in his new role Smotrich—himself a West Bank settler—will oversee the implementation of Israel’s settler project in the West Bank and the continuous dispossession of millions of Palestinians.

COGAT has always played a central role in the colonial government of the Palestinian occupied territory, marrying the management of the Palestinian population with expansion for Israeli settlers. Shortly after the 1967 Six Day War, Israel installed COGAT to manage civilian life in the Palestinian territory just conquered. Absent large-scale measures to further expel Palestinians en masse as it had done in 1948, Israel had to develop an administration to govern unwanted natives. This was the initial function of COGAT.

After decades of administrative growth, COGAT and the Civil Administration have become responsible, among other things, for controlling the import and export of goods, allocating natural resources and planning and building civilian infrastructure; granting or denying permits to Palestinians to enter Israel for work, and medical care or travel abroad. These are some of the main issues COGAT officials currently conceptualise as “humanitarian” policies for the Palestinians that they confine in prisonlike enclaves.

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From my own interviews conducted with ex-COGAT members it emerges clearly that they see themselves, to a certain extent, as the government and representatives of Palestinian needs to other branches of the Israeli military and state, and that without them Palestinians would “suffer more.”

Historically the rhetoric about this unit was one of serving the needs of Palestinians. For instance, the current COGAT military general, Ghasan Alyan, is a Druze whose assumed closer affinity to Palestinian Arabs is seen, from the Israeli colonial gaze, to better understand and represent the natives under rule. With Smotrich, now settlers seemingly have one of their own closer to power.

The appointment of Smotrich at COGAT signals the willingness to appease an ever violent and expansionist settler base in the West Bank. Indeed, settlers and their NGOs, such as the right-wing Regavim of which Smotrich was a founder, often protest that COGAT is violating their rights and is too protective of Palestinian interests because it does not advance colonial settlements at the scale and speed they wish.

At the same time, West Bank settlers feel stigmatised and not on par with Israeli citizens inside the Green Line because they are partly under a military regime, so appointing a civilian governor to the West Bank is also meant to bolster their status. Smotrich plans to further embolden the settler project, as he wants “to remove the Civil Administration from the army and move it to civilian control,” and for the settlers to “stop being second-class citizens living under a military regime and receive the high quality civil services all citizens of Israel enjoy.”

With Itamar Ben-Giver, the Minister of National Security, recently agreeing to Netanyahu pausing the judicial overhaul in exchange for his own private militia, Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line are at an heightened risk of escalated repression.

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COGAT’s civilian powers moving from a military general to a government minister also signifies an acceleration of the de jure annexation of the West Bank. With a government minister directly in charge over civilian matters, the already fictious distinction between Israel and its militarily occupied territories is officially erased. Smotrich is now in charge of the administrative apparatus that can wipe out Palestinians from their lands.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.