Israel’s generals not happy answering to Netanyahu’s two and a half ministers

Israeli Border Police officers surround Itamar Ben-Gvir in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood (AFP)

Lily Galili

Middle East Eye  /  January 23, 2023

Israeli prime minister’s coalition deal has handed unprecedented civil and military control to the far-right, paving the way for the de facto annexation of the West Bank.

Israel’s newly appointed military chief Herzi Halevi finds himself in an unusual situation. The general must answer not to one minister, or even two, but to two and a half Defence ministers. 

Likud’s Yoav Gallant is the Israeli Defence minister. Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the far-right Religious Zionism party, is a minister in the Defence ministry. Itamar Ben-Gvir, of the Jewish Power party, enjoys a chunk of the Defence portfolio as well as being national security minister.

The latter two far-right politicians have claimed their share in the ministry with plans to restructure the authority in the occupied West Bank, which Israel has administered – with the exception of East Jerusalem – through the Israeli Civil Administration, a branch of the Defence ministry.

As part of the agreement that saw him join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, Smotrich demanded – and got – authority over the civil administration, which had up until this point been under the sole control of the Defence minister.

Ben-Gvir, in charge of police, negotiated taking authority over the border police operating in the West Bank. Until now, that force has fallen under the control of the Israeli army’s central command.

But now, according to the coalition agreement, the move in authority will be implemented within 90 days of the new government’s formation.

Of all the fragmentations of ministries that have taken place to facilitate the offering of jobs and appeasement of partners in his far-right coalition, the disruption of the Defence ministry by Netanyahu is the least understood.

Despite warnings from high-ranking officers, including those held in an urgent meeting with the outgoing military chief Aviv Kochavi, Netanyahu has followed through with an unprecedented – and unprecedentedly risky – move. 

This is not something a prime minister who prides himself on being “Mr Security” does. It’s something a man indicted on three charges does to avoid going to prison.

Yagil Levy, a professor of political sociology and public policy at the Open University of Israel, told Middle East Eye that these unprecedented changes in the structure of the army and division of duties might provoke a sense of loss of prestige in the army, particularly among senior officers. 

Amir Eshel, former director general of the Defence ministry and former commander of the Israeli air force, warned that dissection of the ministry between three entities may pose a real danger to security.

At Halevi’s handover ceremony last Monday, Gallant, the Defence minister, addressed the issue, saying he would work to rein in “external pressure” on the armed forces. 

Gallant stressed the unity of command. “For each soldier, there is one commander… and above them all is the chief of staff, subordinate to the Defence minister,” he said. 

That’s one Defence minister, rather than 2.5 Defence ministers. Behind his back, Gallant, who is supposed to lead the ministry, is nicknamed “minister of Defence of the second degree”, or “executive contractor for the dismantling of the army”. Not his fault, in this case. 

The new construction was tested earlier than expected when a power crisis emerged within the coalition on Friday after an illegal Jewish outpost in the West Bank was evacuated shortly after it was established overnight. Gallant ordered the evacuation, defying both Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

In return, Smotrich refused to join the conference call with Netanyahu and Gallant; Ben-Gvir, meanwhile, demanded the immediate evacuation of Khan al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village in the West Bank, claiming a double standard for Jews and Arabs [Palestinians]. This is just the beginning.

Smotrich’s authority over the Israeli Civil Administration and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) is already sealed in the coalition agreement.  

What does it really mean, other than an anomaly within an anomaly? One answer is loud and clear: it means de facto annexation of the West Bank.

Civil and military administration

In order to understand that, it is crucial to appreciate the role of the civil administration in the machinery of occupation.

Established in 1981, the nature of this body was defined in a military order by the military government of the occupied West Bank.

The order stated: “We hereby establish a civil administration… it shall run all regional civil matters corresponding to this military decree, for the wellbeing and for the sake of the local population.” 

In practice, the civil administration is a euphemism for military administration. Since 1994, some of its functions have been transferred to the Palestinian Authority for civil matters in areas A (18 percent of the West Bank) and B (22 percent).

Today, the civil administration is responsible for issuing travel permits from the occupied West Bank and Gaza to Israel. Within the West Bank, it issues work permits to Palestinians entering Israel to work, and oversees all construction permits in Israeli settlements and Palestinian land in Area C (60 percent of the West Bank), which is under full civil and military Israeli control.

“IDF control over the land and the population, particularly the Palestinian one, requires not just weapons, but a mixture of civil, military and legal tools – that’s why it has to remain under a military chain of command,” retired general Nitzan Alon, former head of Central Command, said in a radio interview. 

Subordination of the civil administration to military authority serves not only as an effective organ of occupation but as a legal instrument as well. Israel has never formally annexed the West Bank, and even if it did, its status would nonetheless remain defined by international law as a “temporary military occupation”.

As the world gets impatient with the temporary occupation of 56 years, transferring military authority over the area to a civil ministry raises a legal question.

Ostensibly, it might mean de facto annexation with all the legal repercussions of the change of status. In the meantime, it means deepening apartheid.

Nearly three million Palestinians – including those from areas A and B still dependent on Israel –  and half a million Jewish settlers will find themselves under a new patron, one who preaches Jewish supremacy and is out there to please his far-right electorate. The implications are self-evident.

Retired generals oppose change

Ephraim Sneh, a retired brigadier general and former politician whose last role in the armed forces was as head of the civilian administration he later supervised as deputy Defence minister, is deeply disturbed by the upcoming transfer of power from the military command to Smotrich.

Speaking to MEE, he described the balance the civil administration and military attempt to strike in controlling the West Bank and its population.

“The commander of central command and the head of civil administration need to find the balance between military-security needs and civil needs,” Sneh said.

“Quite often, those needs clash. The head of the civil administration is by definition after the preservation of daily routine, as quiet as possible. The body in charge of security is out there to provide security often at the expense of disrupting the routine of the Palestinians,” he said.

Those in charge of security would, Sneh said, be “in favour of more roadblocks, more restrictions to provide security – while the population is simply after more convenience and mobility”. 

“In the end, it is for the Defence minister to decide,” the retired commander said. “It is a very risky move to put this authority in the hands of a minister whose main interest is to kick out as many Palestinians as possible.

“Even worse, a politician whose best interests are violent clashes between Jews and Arabs [Palestinians] all over, to prepare grounds for future transfer or at least to please his electorate.”

Asked to provide a concrete example of possible confrontation between the military authority of the central command in charge of the West Bank and the civil administration, Sneh described a real-life situation. 

“Let’s think of a situation when a man from a Palestinian village is caught suspected of some terrorist act. The military’s immediate instinct is to put the whole village under siege, revoke all work permits – full collective punishment,” Sneh said.

“The civil administration is by definition not interested in collective punishment, followed by collective protest and then collective violence. Let us say the civil administration favours a punishment imposed on the family only. The minister of Defence is the one to decide. Now, we have two ministers in charge of that decision.”

Sneh added that COGAT, a unit in the Defence ministry that the civil administration is subordinate to, would be headed up by a far-right appointee of Smotrich, “who is on a mission to make the life of the Palestinians as miserable as possible”.

Kochavi’s outgoing warning

In a series of farewell interviews to Israeli media, outgoing military chief Kochavi discussed the pending subordination of West Bank border police to the controversial Ben-Gvir.

He expressed his concern about the move in a meeting he initiated with Netanyahu. Asked about the possible transfer of power to Ben-Gvir, Kochavi did not mince his words.

“We cannot have two armies based on different regulations and different concepts,” he told Channel 13.

“If control is transferred out of the IDF’s command in Judea and Samaria, we will deploy soldiers and reservists to replace the Border Police. Forces operating together will not have two commanders.” 

Kochavi raised the issue with Netanyahu, and left thinking “the right decisions will be made”. But Smotrich and Ben-Gvir were also optimistic when they signed their coalition agreements, having been promised all that and more.

Levy, the academic, is concerned about the possible repercussions. “If due to the transfer of authority over border police to Ben-Gvir more reservists will be needed, certain units might rebel against excessive recruitment,” he told MEE.

The world remains indifferent to the splitting of the education ministry and the transfer of some of its powers to an unrepentant homophobe and misogynist. The same can be said about the disruptions at the foreign ministry.

This is not the case when changes in the military signal a clear and loud change of policy on the use of force, apartheid and the accelerated annexation of the occupied territories. 

“Chaos” is the word most senior offices use to describe where the situation is going, as they warn of a major confrontation with the international community, the US administration, the EU and Arab states.

Lily Galili is a senior Israeli journalist and lecturer focusing on all aspects of Israeli society and immigration to Israel