Israeli West Bank Occupation at a breaking point:
National Security Minister Ben Gvir’s Endgame
Claudia De Martino 16 January 2023

Israel’s 37th government is proving to be the most right-wing in history, with Jewish supremacists, religious settlers, and pro-theocracy haredim being nominated as ministers. Already fomenting division is the government’s new override clause” that would challenge the independence of the Supreme Court by overriding what the court declares as unconstitutional and passing it anyway through the Knesset. Street rallies called by the opposition parties have been gathering on Tel Aviv’s Habima Square. 10,000 people initially showed up, but numbers quickly swelled to 80,000 to protest the government’s new proposal, sketched out by Justice Minister Yariv Levin.

The Supreme Court is currently a target of attacks by right-wing politicians as it is considered the bulwark of liberal values, such as its role in persecuting racially-motivated crimes, redressing minority rights and welcoming petitions from the Palestinian Occupied Territories (OPTs). Values and positions increasingly viewed as “alien” to Jewish indigenous culture by both the Religious Zionists (Tzionut ha-datit, former Tkuma, Otzma Yehudit, Noam) and the Ultra-Orthodox parties (United Torah Judaism and Shas). The political rift about the role of the Supreme Court in Israeli politics is likely to deepen existing divisions between government supporters and pro-opposition center-right voters, who reject the override clause as a threat against the Israeli democracy, even if the Supreme Court’s role progressive politics has been overemphasized by its critics interested in treating it as a public enemy.

The intra-Jewish clash over the “Supreme Court’s affaire” is diverting public opinion’s attention from a much broader, incendiary plan which will bring about a decisive breakthrough: the final blow dealt by the current government to the “two States-solution”. In fact, it is in the West Bank that the main conflict – that it is still raging with the Palestinians, beyond the Green Line – smolders under the surface. To this end, the new Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionist Party, and the new Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir – originally from the faction “Jewish Might” (Otzma Yehudit), which then merged with the Religious Zionists – are eagerly cooperating to advance steps that will bring about the de facto annexation of areas B and C.

Thanks to the success obtained in the last election that secured them 14 seats in the Knesset, their first result has been to be able to force the hand of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sign a coalition agreement extending their powers well beyond their respective Ministries’ usual policy areas. Smotrich has obtained a junior role within the Ministry of Defense as a supervisor of the government’s activities in the occupied territories, thus taking up some of the functions of the COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories), the Ministry of Defense’s unit that coordinates civilian issues between the Government of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Palestinian Authority. In the meanwhile, Ben Gvir has been assigned the National Security Ministry with special supervisory powers over the Border Police.

Despite the move being opposed both by the upper echelons of the IDF, including the outgoing Chief of Staff Avi Kochavi, and by former IDF senior officers, such as Moshe Ya’alon, the deal was reached handing Smotrich control over key aspects of Palestinian civil life in the West Bank’s Area C, including the Civil Administration authority that issues building permits.

Smotrich even replied to his critics that the handover of the West Bank’s administration to civilian authorities should be welcomed as a progressive step towards normalization, as area C – a territory that hosts multiple Israeli army bases, 230 illegal Israeli settlements, some 400,000 settlers and 300,000 Palestinians residing in 532 villages – will no longer be managed as a “no man’s land“ occupied territory subject to international humanitarian law and thus to the scrutiny of the military’s Advocate General, but as a an average Israeli territorial district, though still subject to the Ministry of Defense.

If, until now, the Israeli Civil Administration, though formally independent from the Settler movement, used to issue unilateral demolition orders for any Palestinian illegal structure while refraining to enforce orders against Israeli settlers’ outposts, from now on it is likely to step up efforts to build as many settlements as possible, enforcing the structural expropriation of private Palestinian land. The Civilian Administration activities could reach new heights: recent news points to a new trend that will increase the demolition rate of Palestinian residential structures, expanding its reach also into area B, if they still fall, albeit in name only, under the Palestinian Authority’s control.

Minister Ben Gvir’s plan for Judea and Samaria would not be limited to settling or annexing the land, but would address the core issue of the conflict, that is the Palestinian samud or physical resistance on the land. In fact, he aims to relieve Palestinian demographic pressure, a persistent fixation of Religious Zionists. The extreme Right feels that is has been provided with a unique opportunity to achieve the objective of a Jewish State between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean (Eretz Israel). This would imply having to a final erasure of the Green Line as long as 5.3 million Palestinian people continue to live in neighboring areas A and B, claiming land and natural resources for their own survival and protesting the Jewish character of the State. Therefore, Ha’aretz columnist Zvi Barel cunningly observes that Religious Zionist’s hidden plans would likely entail “recreating Gaza in the West Bank”, that means sealing off the residual Palestinian enclaves in area A from their hinterland in area B, dispatching the IDF to besiege them preventing intra-Palestinian movement and definitevely burying the Palestinian Authority (PA) until it finally collapses.

To this end, a number of measures have already been devised and will soon be operational, all aimed at upsetting the strategic equilibrium of the conflict from a dispute over the same land to an anti-terrorism campaign. The first measure will be to abandon the “conflict management” and confidence-building approach adopted by the previous governments, consisting in securing the PA enough economic aid in the form of loans and incentives such as working permits to Israel, to secure its de facto government within area A by paying public salaries and providing security and services. Instead, the government will cut its funding denouncing its support for Palestinian “martyrs” and prisoners detained in Israeli jails.

This move will further deepen the current PA financial crisis, already triggered by the sanctions issued by Israel following the PA’s initiative to address the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Indeed, the PA’s decision to address the UN Assembly to give a mandate to the ICJ to open an investigation on the status of the Occupied Palestinian Territories has already cost the PA, amounting to a total of 26.6 million euros withdrawn from its coffers in retaliation by Israel and paid to Jewish victims physically or mentally damaged by terrorist attacks.

The ultimate goal is to undermine the Palestinian government’s’s functioning to the extent that it can no longer financially and politically function and will be forced to resign, creating a Gaza-like situation in the West Bank, where no central and recognized authority will be in charge and therefore security and governance will be transferred again to the Israeli army. Palestinian cities won’t be formally annexed but they would rather continue to live in a vacuum whereby Palestinians would have no ability to vote either for the Knesset or for their own local institutions and would have to pay taxes to Israel without receiving any public service in return, nor any right to live within the Green Line, basically rendering them stateless and only allowed to travel abroad on a case-by-case basis.

The second measure will be to exploit any possible pretext to bring an end to security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority by denouncing its inability to quash any minor terrorist attack or terrorist group active in the area under its control (area A), for example in the Jenin Refugee Camp, while granting the IDF and the Border Police full immunity for any crime perpetrated against Palestinians over the Green Line. Finally, the plan’s third step will consist in making Palestinian life in Jerusalem unbearable to the point that a good percentage of the around 200,000 Palestinians still living in the city will be compelled to leave it: as East Jerusalem is already an enclave cut off from Gaza and the West Bank, its residents survive in a political vacuum, not being entitled to take part in the political life of either land.

However, their condition could soon worsen further: Ben Gvir is indeed advancing legislation, as agreed upon in the coalition agreement, to ease the transfer of Palestinian property to Israeli ownership on the basis of the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law and the Legal and Administrative Matters Law of 1970 and both laws would give Israelis the right to reclaim properties owned by them in East Jerusalem before 1948 (see the Sheikh Jarrah dispute of August 2021), while the same right would not be applied to Palestinians reclaiming their property within the Green Line before the Six Days War. In this context, the Ben Gvir’s Temple Mount tour of early January can be explained as a tool to escalate intra-communal tensions helpful to underpin the overall narrative.

Furthermore, Ben Gvir’s plan does not restrict itself to the West Bank, but entails also measures to undermine the status of the Palestinians of 1948 (or “Palestinians of Israel”), subjecting them to a “loyalty oath” to the Jewish Nation-State (according to the 2018 “Jewish Nation-State Law”) and threatening them with deportation if  they do not comply, going so far as to propose setting up a special “Emigration Agency” to offer incentives to those Palestinians, irrespective of if they reside within or beyond the Green Line, willing to sign up for voluntary emigration (Ben Gvir’s interview in August 2022 on Channel 13 Hatzinor program and Otzma Yehudit Political Manifesto for the 23rd Knesset, 2020).

Ben Gvir aims at digging a ditch between the Arab and Jewish sectors of Israeli society, taking advantage of the widespread mistrust sparked by the May 2021 riots. Indeed, the May 2021 events are still impressed in the mind of many young Israelis, too young to experience the Second Intifada (2000-2005), who rushed to support Ben Gvir in droves in the last elections, whose first encounter with mass scale Palestinian violence where indeed the Arab-Jewish riots in the so-called mixed cities of Lod, Beersheva, Hadera, and Akko. Over a single week Arab and Jewish rioters stormed public places of  worship, set fire to city centrers and cars, threw stones at each other, looted houses and businesses and even killed a number of civilians, revealing a mutual hatred that shook the foundation of coexistence within the Israeli society.

Ever since, a creeping “Nakba” discourse has started gaining traction by, but not limited to, the Religious Zionists: reversing the centrality of the Nakba memory in the Palestinian consciousness. Some Israeli politicians it began speaking of it as a cautionary tale to threaten Arabs with heavy consequences in case of treachery and aggression. For example, Uzi Dayan, a Likud Knesset Member, aired this threat during an interview on Channel 14: “The thing we need to tell the Arab community, even those who didn’t participate in the attacks, is to be careful. If we reach a civil war situation, things will end in one word and a situation you know, which is Nakba. This is what will happen in the end.” Ben Gvir is exaggerating a threat that is ever more mainstream in Israeli politics: reminding the Palestinians of the ever-present possibility of a new “catastrophe” serves as a warning to rein in the Arab-Israeli community.

The real question is that territorial division is no longer possible, and the narrative around the conflict cannot continue to be recounted as one of a struggle to divide a land to which both are entitled, because the Jewish majority will never relinquish any territory and won’t evacuate a single settlement. No government over the last 15 years has ever seriously taken into consideration the idea of granting a Palestinian State or advancing somehow towards the implementation of the second part of the Oslo Accords, but the process has irreparably come to a halt with the “Peace to Prosperity” Plan sketched out by the Trump Administration introducing a whole new paradigm, partially conceded to by some Arab countries through the signature of the Abraham Accords. Therefore, there is no point for the international community in sticking to the Two-state solution once the region’s main actors have already abandoned it.

The current Israeli government is just blatantly pushing it to its logical conclusion: unlike previous governments, it plays it straight and declares itself no longer interested in pleasing the international community by urging the resumption of peace negotiations while advancing settlements on the ground. In the long term, their dream scenario will be to annex the whole land, crush Palestinian resistance and send a good percentage of their enemies over the Jordan River or to Europe. The aim then is to take down the Separation Wall, all checkpoints, and the intricate network of bypass roads devised to avert contact with Palestinians, and finally enjoy full possession of the country.

In the short term and given the circumstances, however, they will spare no effort to keep the internal Arab opposition at bay and enforce those same barriers, both physical and political, designed to keep Palestinian citizens out of both the Knesset and Israeli society. With neither negotiations nor annexation in sight, Ben Gvir’s plan will be to make a hell of the West Bank following the blueprint of the Gaza Strip, resorting to any trick he might have up his sleeve: annoying Palestinian and Islamic traditions on the Temple Mount and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, harassing them socially, organizing racist “Flag Marches” through Jerusalem, challenging their national identity by banning all Palestinian flags, or even personally, threatening to deport prominent figures speaking up for the community, such as Arab Knesset Member,  Ayman Odeh, on charges of disloyalty. All moves aimed at a single goal, that of triggering a major upheaval such as the Third Intifada, the only alibi for launching an all-out war. In fact, it is crystal clear that today Israel has achieved its full military victory, but the tug of war proves to be the demographic challenge and the impossibility for the Jews to constitute a firm majority in historical Palestine, as both groups amount to 7.5 million each, but with the Jewish population still in consistent decline, as laid out in demographic projections.

Now that the “one-state solution” looms large, the Revisionist Zionists, renamed Religious Zionists, are thrilled with excitement, anticipating full possession of the whole land by the Jews without its noxious Arab inhabitants. In turn, it would be fundamental for both progressive Jews and Palestinians to reconsider their take on the conflict, adopt the new paradigm and act accordingly. It would be essential for progressive Palestinians to get rid of millenarian views and focus on a rights-based approach towards the advancement of a single democratic state recognizing that, despite everything, Right and Left Jewish parties are still different in their respective agendas and cannot be levelled out. It would be vital for the Israeli Left, on the brink of disappearance, to act together, drop its Zionist label and shift from a minority to a majority approach, realizing that progressive Jews and Palestinians can still build an alternative political block able to challenge apartheid. And that by doing so, they might be able toavoid a future Nakba.



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