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Ebiathar, in the northern West Bank, is one of five settlements that Israel has recently decided to grant legal status to, even though settlements in the area are widely considered illegal under international law. credit…Sergey Ponomarev (The New York Times)

As tensions rise between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Israel makes new moves to expand its control there, an Israeli army general on Monday sharply criticized government policies in the territory and blamed a rise in “nationalist crimes” by Jewish settlers.

Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuks, the outgoing commander of Israel’s Central Command, which oversees Israel’s forces in the West Bank, said at his retirement ceremony that a “strong and functioning” Palestinian Authority was in Israel’s security interests.

The general’s comments were seen as a scathing attack on Israel’s far-right Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, himself a settler who has undermined Israel by withholding taxes that it collects on its behalf from the roughly 40 percent of the West Bank it controls.

Fuchs also expressed dismay at the rise in settler violence in the West Bank, which is home to some 2.7 million Palestinians and well over 500,000 Jewish settlers. He said a radical minority of violent settlers was damaging Israel’s international reputation and sowing fear among Palestinians. “To me, that is not Judaism,” he said. “At least, it is not the Judaism that I was brought up in in my mother and father’s house. It is not the teachings of the Torah.”

Israel seized control of the West Bank from Jordan in 1967 during its war with three Arab countries, and since then Israeli civilians have settled there with the government’s tacit and explicit approval and live under Israeli civil law, while their Palestinian neighbors are subject to Israeli military law.

The international community largely considers Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal, many of which are illegal under Israeli law but tolerated by the government. Many of the settlements illegal under Israeli law have since been legalized by the government, and Palestinians have long argued they were a gradual annexation that turned land needed for an independent Palestinian state into an unmanageable patchwork.

The United Nations reported last year that attacks on Palestinians in the West Bank spiked in the weeks following the Oct. 7 attacks that sparked war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, leaving at least 115 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and about 1,000 displaced, citing violence and intimidation by Israeli forces and settlers.

General Fuchs argued that terrorizing Palestinians living side by side with Jews was a “dangerous mistake” and that the actions of violent Jewish settlers threatened Israel’s security.

But Mr. Smotrich has been vocal about his desire for Israel to take over all of the West Bank. Last month, he reached a deal with his cabinet to release some withheld funds from the Palestinian Authority in exchange for legalizing five more Jewish settlements, and last week the Treasury Department released about $136 million.

In a social media post that day, Smotrich said he was working with planning authorities to Add 5,000 homes “We are building a good country and preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state,” he said.

The Israeli government last month approved the largest land seizure in the West Bank since the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and Palestine in 1993, claiming about five square miles of land in the Jordan Valley, according to Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settler activity. Israel has seized about nine square miles of the area this year, and 2024 will be its peak year for the budget so far, Peace Now said.

Settlers and ministers have been defiant, but their actions have become a source of tension with other countries, including Israel’s ally the United States, as Israel finds itself increasingly isolated in the world over its war efforts in Gaza.

“Settlement building continues to be counterproductive to the two-state solution,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said at a press conference on Monday. “We do not support it.”

Jonathan Rice Contributed report.


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