Israeli far-right minister speaks of effort to annex West Bank

<span>Bezalel Smotrich is Israel’s finance minister and also serves as a minister in the defence ministry.</span><span>Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters</span>
Bezalel Smotrich is Israel’s finance minister and also serves as a minister in the defence ministry.Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has described in explicit terms his active effort to annex the West Bank to Israel, days after the Guardian revealed how the pro-settlement politician and his allies had quietly gained significant new legal powers to that end.

Speaking at a meeting of his Religious Zionism party, Smotrich told colleagues that he was “establish[ing] facts on the ground in order to make Judea and Samaria [an Israeli term for the occupied West Bank] an integral part of the state of Israel”.

“We will establish sovereignty … first on the ground and then through legislation. I intend to legalise the young settlements [illegal outposts],” Smotrich said in comments reported by Haaretz. “My life’s mission is to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Annexation and the acquisition of territory by military conquest is forbidden as one of the founding principles of international law including the UN charter.

The comments by Smotrich echoed recorded remarks he made at a gathering of supporters in the West Bank, first disclosed by the New York Times, in which he appeared to refer to the administrative changes as “mega-dramatic”. He was quoted as saying: “Such changes change a system’s DNA.”

Speaking about his acquisition of new legal powers, he said “[we] created a separate civilian system,” adding that to avoid international criticism the government had kept the defence ministry involved in the process, making it seem as if the military was still the main player in governing the West Bank.

“It will be easier to swallow in the international and legal context,” he said.

As well as serving as finance minister, Smotrich serves as a minister at Israel’s defence ministry, including with responsibility for the Civil Administration, which oversees Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

As the Guardian revealed last week, the Israeli military recently quietly handed over significant legal powers in the occupied West Bank to pro-settler civil servants working for Smotrich.

An order posted by the Israel Defense Forces on its website on 29 May transferred responsibility for dozens of bylaws at the Civil Administration from the military to officials led by Smotrich at the defence ministry.

Smotrich and his allies have long seen control of the Civil Administration, or significant parts of it, as a means of extending Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank. Their ultimate goal is direct control by central government and its ministries. The transfer reduces the likelihood of legal checks on settlement expansion and development.

Israeli politicians have long sought to find ways to permanently seize, or annex, the occupied West Bank​, which it captured in 1967 and where millions of Palestinians live.

Speaking after the transfer of powers was disclosed, Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer, said: “The bottom line is that [for] anyone who thought the question of annexation was foggy, this order should end any doubts.”

It is the latest coup for Smotrich, who became finance minister and a minister in the defence ministry after a coalition agreement between his far-right political party and the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The Civil Administration is principally responsible for planning and construction in area C of the West Bank – the 60% of the occupied Palestinian territories under full Israeli administrative and security control – as well as enforcement against unauthorised construction, whether by Israeli settlers or by Palestinians.

The transfer of laws, which was largely unremarked upon in Israel, follows a years-long campaign by pro-settlement politicians to accrue many of the legal powers previously wielded by the military chain of command.

The laws cover everything from building regulations to the administration of agriculture, forestry, parks and bathing locations. Lawyers have long warned that transferring them from military to political control would risk bringing Israel into conflict with its responsibilities under international law.

After entering government, Smotrich moved quickly to approve thousands of new settlement homes, “legalise” previously unauthorised wildcat outposts, and make it more difficult for Palestinians to build homes and move around.

Reports in the Israeli media say US officials have privately discussed the possibility of imposing sanctions on Smotrich over his destabilising impact on the West Bank, where he lives in a settlement that is illegal under international law.

Netanyahu has become more reliant on the support of Smotrich and other far-right elements of his coalition government since the former defence minister Benny Gantz quit Israel’s emergency war cabinet in a row over strategy in the Gaza war and how to bring home Israeli hostages held by Hamas.