Agreement Detailing Smotrich’s Authority in the Defense Ministry Grants Powers Intended to Expand Settlement Enterprise

Adalah: The transfer of such powers to a ‘civil’ minister further exacerbates violations of international law, encompassing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and acts of aggression through de facto annexation, all while flagrantly violating the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.

On 25 March 2024, Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel sent a letter to  Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s Finance Minister who also holds ministerial rank in the Defense Ministry, the Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other relevant officials, to demand the cancellation of the “memorandum of understanding and division of responsibilities and powers between the Minister of Defense and the additional minister in the Ministry of Defense”, recently obtained by Adalah. As Adalah argued in the letter, this agreement serves to exacerbate ongoing breaches of international law in the OPT, including: the commission of war crimes through the establishment and expansion of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT); the crime against humanity of Apartheid; acts of aggression through the de facto annexation of occupied territory, all while flagrantly violating the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.


CLICK HERE to read the letter [Hebrew]


Adalah recently obtained a copy of the memorandum of understanding, which was signed on 23 February 2023 after repeated requests and a freedom of information request filed in March 2023. The memorandum was signed pursuant to the 2022 coalition agreements between the Religious Zionist Party and the ruling Likud Party, and following a legislative amendment passed by the Knesset to the Basic Law: The Government in December 2022 which allowed for the appointment of an additional minister in various ministries.


CLICK HERE to read the memorandum of understanding [Hebrew]


CLICK HERE to read “Adalah’s Analysis of the New Israeli Government’s Guiding Principles and Coalition Agreements and their Implications on Palestinians’ Rights”


According to the memorandum, the Defense Minister will retain responsibility for military activities in the West Bank, while Smotrich will have authority over most civil matters. This includes directing policies for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and civil administration in key areas including land management, planning, acquisition, and expropriation, the declaration of land as ‘state land,’ the ‘legalization’  of settlements, agricultural farms, energy regulation, water connections in settlements in Area C, the process through which Palestinians in Area C may apply for building permits from Israel, access to cellular networks in settlements, transportation, archaeological excavation licensing, municipal jurisdiction, and the management of holy sites. For this purpose, a separate ‘civilian’ system named the “Settlement Administration” was established within the Israeli governing system in the West Bank, entrusted with implementing the powers of Minister Smotrich, along with leading and implementing the "Equal Citizenship" reform, aimed at improving the governmental services provided to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.


In the letter, Adalah’s legal director, Dr. Suhad Bishara, argued that this arrangement is intended to implement the explicit agenda of the Religious Zionist Party to “implement Israeli sovereignty” in the occupied West Bank, deepening the de facto annexation of the territory and the expansion of  the settlement enterprise there. This agreement, effectively granting him complete control over all matters related to settlements, enables Smotrich to create facts on the ground which consolidate Israeli control and expand the settlement enterprise in the West Bank, effectively solidifying de facto Israeli annexation of the West Bank.


Adalah argued that transferring these authorities to a minister and a designated department with the explicit objective of improving services to settlements and legalizing outposts under Israeli law, which are both illegal under international humanitarian law, constitutes a violation of the international law applicable to occupied territories. Adalah further argued that the agreement violates the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits the transfer by occupying powers of their own civilian population to occupied territory, constituting a war crime under the Rome Statute of the ICC. Adalah noted that this violation is a primary focus of the International Criminal Court’s ongoing investigation. Adalah further argued that the memorandum entrenches the apartheid system that already exists in the OPT since it creates a mechanism intended to improve infrastructure and services to Jewish settlements. This mechanism violates the absolute prohibition established in the 1973 Apartheid Convention, which defines apartheid as a crime against humanity.


Adalah further noted that the intention of the agreement to "civilianize" the settlements and transfer these authorities to a so-called 'civilian' minister in the Ministry of Defense constitutes de facto annexation of occupied territories, in absolute violation of the laws of occupation.Finally, Adalah highlighted that the memorandum establishes a system of governance that flagrantly violates the right of Palestinians to self-determination and sovereignty in their homeland, as recognized by international law.


The repercussions of the transfer of authorities over land in the OPT to Minister Smotrich and its criminal implications became evident with Smotrich’s declaration of 800 hectares (1,977 acres) in the occupied West Bank as state land. This move, aimed at facilitating settlement construction on Palestinian land and blatantly violating international law, highlights the flagrant disregard for international legal norms resulting from the transfer of such authorities to Minister Smotrich.


Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90