Sunday, January 16, 2022

Unauthorized settlement creates stress test for Israel’s new government

JABAL SUBEH, West Bank — When Israeli settlers occupied a windmill hill in the West Bank last month, it became the latest of nearly 140 unauthorized settler outposts built there in recent decades. Apart from Palestinian villagers, who could no longer access the olive groves, the camp initially attracted little attention.

Since then, the rapidly expanding settlement, Avyatar, and the massive opposition to attracting it have become an initial stress test for the fragile new Israeli government.

The settlement is illegal under Israeli law, and the Israeli military has ordered It broke down, subject to government approval.

If the new right-wing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, supports the settlers, he will alienate the left-wing and Arab members of his coalition. If he allows them to be evicted, he will give Israel the right to paint him as a turncoat. The eviction could come as soon as Sunday, but it could be delayed by legal proceedings.

“This is Naftali Bennett’s test,” Yoav Kish, an MLA from the opposition Likud party, said while visiting the township on Tuesday.

“If you are indeed the Prime Minister and you have a truly right-wing ideology, stop this wrong, twisted and fraudulent evacuation of Avyatar,” he said. “It’s in your hands.”

Mr. Bennett’s dilemma symbolizes the chain his government has been running in its early days in office.

In order to gain a parliamentary majority sufficient to push his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, from power, Mr. Bennett and his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, assembled an ideologically incompatible coalition, ranging from leftists to hard-right politicians such as Mr. The agreement opposes expansion. Bennett who supported the construction of settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The bloc came together on a single issue – the need to remove Mr. Netanyahu – but the regime has quickly proved a difficult task.

Before entering office, the leaders of the eight-party coalition promised to focus on policies that unite them, such as infrastructure and the economy, and avoid third-rail issues such as the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

To some extent, the government has followed through on this pledge: Mr Bennett and other government ministers presented a united front this week in response to a sudden rise in coronavirus cases. They have moved swiftly to strengthen ties with the Biden administration, filling dozens of vacant senior civil service positions and agreeing to launch an investigation into a disaster at a religious site that killed 45 people in April. .

But the Palestinian question, and the 54-year occupation of the West Bank, has proved impossible to detract from the day-to-day business of running the Israeli government.

Mr. Bennett’s government is struggling to find a majority to expand 2003 law It effectively prohibits the granting of citizenship to Palestinians who are married to citizens of Israel. Under previous governments, the law has been extended every year without drama, but this year its extension is at risk as Arab and left-wing members of the coalition oppose it.

That split has given Mr Netanyahu’s party, Likud, an opportunity: Likud has withdrawn its support for the bill, despite it having always supported it. By allowing this to fail, Likud hopes to embarrass Mr. Bennett about how dependent his government is on the Arabs and the Left.

Mr Netanyahu had previously set another trap for the Bennett government, deciding in his last week of office to allow far-right activists to set up a provocative march on the second day of Mr Bennett’s term. Mr. Bennett’s government allowed the march to take place, setting off a fierce reaction from leftist members of his coalition and testing the unity of the government.

There is also disagreement over the question of improving housing rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. And discussions about allegations of apartheid in Israel, co-hosted by a left-wing coalition member in the Israeli parliament on Tuesday, highlighted the vast gap in ideologies within the government bloc.

“The opposition is looking for issues that will embarrass the government and create cracks within it,” said Tamar Herman, a professor of political science at Israel’s Open University. “They’re constantly looking for a spoke to stick in its wheel.”

One of the most pressing disputes for the alliance is the settlement on Jabal Subeh, a hill near Nablus in the northern West Bank. Mr Lapid, the foreign minister, wants to go ahead with the evictions, while a member of Mr Bennet’s party, Nir Orbach, visited the site on Thursday to show solidarity with its residents.

The settlers pitched several tents there on 3 May, naming the new village for Ivyatar Borowski, a settler killed by a Palestinian in 2013.

The settlement expanded unusually rapidly, and now includes about 50 one-story houses, several tarmac streets, each with its own street sign, as well as a Wi-Fi network, a synagogue, an electricity generator and a water storage system.

Basti leaders say they are only acting on their own initiative and have received funds only from crowdsourced. But the site was quickly given a critical role by Likud, which sent representatives to Avyatar to raise its profile and sought to turn it into a wedge issue for the new government.

The West Bank was occupied by Israel in 1967, and all Jewish settlements in much of the world are considered illegal under international law. However, most settlers live in settlements permitted under Israeli law.

But an aviator made without the permission of the Israeli state is illegal according to Israeli law.

Mr. Bennett said in 2012 that he would consider it unconscionable to evict any settlers in the West Bank, and would deny a military order to do so. The issue may eventually be decided by the High Court.

The government’s approval of the eviction would anger Mr. Bennett’s supporters, who believe that settlements in the West Bank are essential to Israel’s security and that, for many, the area was one of the lands God promised the Jews. was.

“It is forbidden for him to touch this memorial site,” said Mr. Borowski’s widow, Sofia, who now lives part of the week in the settlement. “If they remove the community,” she continued, “it would be like killing my husband again.”

Mr Bennett’s office declined to comment.

From the other side of the valley the view in the Palestinian village of Beita was very different. Pointing to an olive orchard descending from the new settlement, a retired farmer said he helped his father plant its trees in the 1960s, before Israel annexed the land from Jordan.

“I can’t forget my father,” said 68-year-old farmer Mohammad Khabisa, his face sweating while digging the ground. “When I see those dogs on that hill, that memory sets me on fire.”

Mr Khabisa’s family is one of 17, who say they have owned land at the site of the settlement for generations. Twenty-two other families claim adjacent land which is blocked by soldiers protecting the settlers. None of them serve to prove ownership, and Israeli military officials have said it is unclear who owns the land.

The government department that oversees the civil aspects of the occupation has acknowledged that at least five families, including Mr. Khabisa, paid land taxes on plots in the mountainous region during the 1930s, before Jordan ceded the territory. took control, although the exact whereabouts of those plots were unclear.

Fury over the settler takeover has led to daily protests and marches by Palestinian villagers, farmers and their supporters. In an effort to release the settlers, they threw stones at soldiers blocking access to the hill, burned tires in the surrounding valleys, and pointed laser pens at the settlement at night.

Palestinian officials say at least four Palestinians have been killed and hundreds injured by Israeli soldiers firing during the protests. Mr Khabisa has a fresh scar above his left knee after an Israeli soldier fired tear gas shells at him during a protest in early June, he said, hitting him from a short distance.

For Palestinians like Mr Khabisa, the question of whether Mr Bennett will or will not support the destruction of the agreement is not worth it in the long run. They see the settlers, the soldiers, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Netanyahu ultimately as part of the same system that has gradually taken control of more and more land in the West Bank since 1967.

“Every government has one goal,” said Mr. Khabisa. “Seizure of the land.”

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