Alarm as Israeli authorities use ‘Judea and Samaria governorate’ to refer to West Bank

RAMALLAH: Israeli authorities’ use of the term “Judea and Samaria governorate” in official documents to describe the West Bank has raised Palestinian concerns of a ploy to “silently” annex settlements in the area.

Ismat Mansour, a Palestinian expert on Israeli affairs, told Arab News that Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is implementing plans to annex the West Bank, bypassing bureaucratic, administrative and political obstacles, and ignoring external pressures as he seeks to subject the area to Israeli law.

Mansour said that annexing the West Bank to Israel might not affect the lives of 3 million Palestinians, but would certainly affect the Palestinian Authority politically and legally.

With the PA calling for a two-state solution, annexation will make the West Bank non-negotiable and subject to Israeli law, he said.

More than 650,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, while Area C constitutes about 60 percent of the West Bank.

Sources say that Israeli military authorities have used “Judea and Samaria Brigade,” a military term for the West Bank, for the the past 55 years.

Palestinian drivers say that tickets issued by Israeli traffic police when they travel between Palestinian cities bear the logo of “the Judea and Samaria governorate,” while the signs of some roads and places have been changed to carry the new name.

Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Al-Khatib told Arab News that Smotrich is taking small steps toward formal annexation in the face of international pressure.

Smotrich’s measures, which aim to annex Area C to Israel, should alarm the PA, he added.

Israeli affairs expert Majdi Halabi told Arab News that Smotrich is trying to improve the living conditions of settlers in the West Bank to bring them in line with those of Israeli citizens in Tel Aviv.

Halabi added that Smotrich’s assumption of responsibility for the Civil Administration gives him powers related to Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

The Israeli Civil Administration has significantly increased its dealings with Palestinians’ civilian affairs without going through the PA, while dealing with the settlers takes place through Israeli government ministries.

Israeli journalist Dana Ben Shimon, of Israel Today, said that Smotrich wants to transfer the powers of the IDF’s Civil Administration regarding settlers in the West Bank to Israeli ministries because he does not believe that Israel is occupying the territory, but constantly repeats: “We are not guests there, but rather we are the owners of the land.”

Ben Shimon said that Smotrich wants government ministries to control the management of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and settlers he considers Israeli citizens. He also looks forward to annexing the settlements to Israel and Area C.

Israeli political analyst Yoni Ben Menachem believes that Smotrich is trying to equate the rights of settlers in the West Bank with those of other Israeli citizens.

“Smotrich wants to solve all settler problems in the West Bank, legitimize settlement outposts and provide them with services such as water and electricity, and increase Israeli influence in the West Bank, which will increase the level of political support for him among the settlers,” said Ben Menachem.

Nevertheless, the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) approved, in its first reading on Tuesday, a bill to abolish the “separation/withdrawal” law, or what is known as “disengagement” from settlements in the northern West Bank.

According to the bill, a ban will be lifted on settlers entering and staying in the evacuated northern West Bank settlement areas, as well as recently evacuated outposts, including Homesh, between Nablus and Jenin.

Palestinians inside Israel and in the West Bank are preparing to commemorate Land Day on March 30 with protests against the Israeli occupation.