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HomeNewsUnauthorized Settlement Creates Stress Test for Israel’s New Government

Unauthorized Settlement Creates Stress Test for Israel’s New Government

JABAL SUBEIH, WEST BOROUGH — When Israeli settlers took control of a windswept hilltop in the West Bank last month, they became the latest of approximately 140 unauthorised settler outposts built there in recent decades. The encampment initially drew little attention, aside from Palestinian villagers who could no longer access the olive groves there.

Since then, the rapidly expanding settlement of Evyatar, as well as the massive protests it has sparked, have served as an early litmus test for Israel’s fragile new government.

The settlement is illegal under Israeli law, and the Israeli Army has ordered that it be demolished, subject to government approval.

If the new right-wing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, supports the settlers, he will alienate the coalition’s leftist and Arab members. If he allows them to be evicted, the Israeli right will portray him as a traitor. An eviction could take place as soon as Sunday, but it could be postponed due to legal proceedings.

“This is Naftali Bennett’s test,” said Yoav Kisch, a lawmaker from the opposition Likud party, during a tour of the settlement on Tuesday.

“If you are truly the prime minister, and you truly believe in right-wing ideology, stop this wrong, twisted, and fraudulent evacuation of Evyatar,” he added. “You have control over this.”

Mr. Bennett’s predicament exemplifies the tightrope his government is walking in its early days in office.

Mr. Bennett and his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, assembled an ideologically incoherent alliance that ranges from leftists who oppose settlement expansion to hard-right politicians like Mr. Bennett who support building settlements across the occupied West Bank to win a parliamentary majority large enough to depose his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

The bloc came together on a single issue — the need to depose Mr. Netanyahu — but governing has proven to be more difficult.

Before taking office, the leaders of the eight-party coalition promised to focus on policies that brought them together, such as infrastructure and the economy, and to avoid touchy subjects like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To some extent, the government has kept its end of the bargain: In response to a sudden increase in coronavirus cases, Mr. Bennett and other government ministers presented a united front this week. They have moved quickly to strengthen ties with the Biden administration, filling dozens of vacant senior Civil Service positions and agreeing to launch an investigation into a religious site disaster in April that killed 45 people.

However, the Palestinian issue, as well as Israel’s 54-year occupation of the West Bank, have proven impossible to separate from the day-to-day business of running an Israeli government.

Mr. Bennett’s government is struggling to find a majority to extend a 2003 law that effectively prohibits Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from obtaining citizenship. The law has been extended without incident by previous governments, but its extension this year is jeopardised because Arab and leftist coalition members oppose it.

This schism has provided Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party with an opportunity: Likud has withdrawn its support for the bill, despite previously supporting it. Likud hopes that by allowing it to fail, it will embarrass Mr. Bennett by highlighting his government’s reliance on Arabs and leftists.

Mr. Netanyahu had previously set another trap for the Bennett government, deciding in his final week in office to allow far-right activists to organise a provocative march on Mr. Bennett’s second day in office. Mr. Bennett’s government allowed the march to take place, infuriating leftist members of his coalition and putting the government’s unity to the test.

Disagreements also loom over the issue of improving housing rights for Israeli Palestinian citizens. A discussion about allegations of apartheid in Israel, co-hosted by a member of the leftist coalition in the Israeli Parliament on Tuesday, highlighted the vast ideological divide within the government bloc.

“The opposition is sniffing around for issues that will embarrass the government and cause schisms within it,” said Tamar Hermann, a political science professor at the Open University of Israel. “They are constantly on the lookout for a spoke to stick into its wheel.”

The settlement on Jabal Subeih, a hill near Nablus in the northern West Bank, is one of the coalition’s most pressing issues. Mr. Lapid, the foreign minister, wants the eviction to go ahead, while Nir Orbach, a member of Mr. Bennett’s party, visited the site on Thursday to express solidarity with the residents.

On May 3, settlers set up several tents and named the new hamlet Evyatar Borovski, a settler killed by a Palestinian in 2013.

The settlement grew at an unusually rapid pace, and it now includes approximately 50 one-story homes, several tarmac streets, each with its own street sign, a Wi-Fi network, a synagogue, an electricity generator, and a water storage system.

The settlement leaders claim they are acting solely on their own initiative and have received no outside funding. However, the site was quickly exploited by Likud, which dispatched representatives to Evyatar to raise its profile and turn it into a wedge issue for the new government.

Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, and much of the world considers all Jewish settlements there to be illegal under international law. The majority of settlers, however, live in settlements that are legal under Israeli law.

However, according to Israeli law, Evyatar is illegal because it was built without the permission of the Israeli state.

Mr. Bennett stated in 2012 that evicting any settlers in the West Bank would be unconscionable, and that he would refuse a military order to do so. The issue may be decided by the High Court in the end.

Government approval of the eviction would infuriate Mr. Bennett’s supporters, who believe that West Bank settlements are critical to Israel’s security and, for many, that the territory was among the lands promised to Jews by God.

Mr. Borovski’s widow, Sofia, who now spends part of the week at the settlement, said, “It’s forbidden for him to touch this memorial site.” “Removing the community would be like killing my husband all over again,” she added.

Mr. Bennett’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The view from the Palestinian village of Beita on the other side of the valley was quite different. A retired farmer pointed to an olive grove descending from the new settlement and said he helped his father plant its trees in the 1960s, before Israel captured the land from Jordan.

“I can’t forget my father digging the land, sweat pouring down his face,” said Mohammed Khabeisa, 68. “When I see those dogs up on that hill, that memory ignites a fire inside me.”

Mr. Khabeisa’s family is one of 17 who claim to have owned land on the settlement’s site for generations. Twenty-two other families have claimed adjacent land that soldiers protecting the settlers have blocked off. None of them have ownership deeds, and Israeli military officials have stated that it is unclear who owns the land.

The government department in charge of overseeing civil aspects of the occupation has acknowledged that at least five families, including Mr. Khabeisa’s, paid land tax on plots in the area of the hill in the 1930s, before Jordan took control of the territory, though the exact location of those plots is unknown.

Palestinian villagers, farmers, and supporters have staged daily protests and marches in response to the settler takeover. In an attempt to force the settlers to leave, they have thrown stones at the soldiers blocking access to the hill, burned tyres in the surrounding valleys, and pointed laser pens at the settlement at night.

According to Palestinian officials, at least four Palestinians have been killed and hundreds have been injured by Israeli soldiers firing live rounds during these protests. Mr. Khabeisa has a fresh scar above his left knee from a tear-gas canister fired at him by an Israeli soldier during a protest in early June, he claims, hitting him at close range.

For Palestinians like Mr. Khabeisa, whether Mr. Bennett will or will not support the settlement’s destruction is unimportant in the long run. They see the settlers, the soldiers, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Netanyahu as all part of the same system that has gradually taken control of more and more West Bank land since 1967.

“Every government has the same goal,” Mr. Khabeisa stated. “Land encroachment.”

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