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Unauthorized settlement creates stress test for new Israeli government

JABAL SUBEIH, West Bank – When Israeli settlers took control of a windswept hill in the West Bank last month, it became the last of some 140 unauthorized settler outposts built there over the years. last decades. Apart from the Palestinian villagers who could no longer reach the olive groves there, the encampment initially attracted little attention.

Since then, the rapidly expanding settlement, Evyatar, and the huge protests it began to attract, have become an early stress test for the fragile new Israeli government.

The settlement is illegal under Israeli law, and the Israeli military has ordered its destruction, 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 deported, he will allow the Israeli right to paint him as a defector. An eviction could take place as early as Sunday, but could be delayed by legal proceedings.

“This is Naftali Bennett’s test,” said Yoav Kisch, an MP from the opposition Likud party, as he visited the colony on Tuesday.

“If you really are the Prime Minister and you really have a right-wing ideology in you, stop this mistaken, twisted and fraudulent evacuation of Evyatar,” he added. “This is in your hands. “

Mr. Bennett’s dilemma embodies the tightrope on which his government treads during its early days in office.

To gain a parliamentary majority large enough to oust his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, from power, Mr. Bennett and his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, have formed an ideologically inconsistent alliance that ranges from leftists opposed to settlement expansion to politicians in the far right like Mr. Bennett who support the construction of settlements throughout the occupied West Bank.

The bloc came together on one issue – the need to impeach Mr. Netanyahu – but governing quickly proved to be a more difficult job.

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

To some extent, the government has kept that commitment: Mr Bennett and other government ministers presented a united front this week to respond to a sudden increase in coronavirus cases. They acted quickly to strengthen ties with the Biden administration, filled dozens of vacant civil service positions and agreed to open an investigation into a disaster at a religious site that killed 45 people in April.

But the Palestinian question and the 54 years of occupation of the West Bank have already proved 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 bans the granting of citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens. Under previous governments, the law has been extended every year without drama, but this year its extension is under threat as Arab and left-wing members of the coalition oppose it.

This split gave Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party an opportunity: Likud withdrew its support for the bill, although it still supported it. By allowing him to fail, Likud hopes to embarrass Mr. Bennett by stressing how much his government depends on Arabs and leftists.

Mr Netanyahu had previously set another trap for the Bennett government, deciding during his last week in office to allow far-right activists to plan a provocative march on the second day of Mr Bennett’s mandate. Mr Bennett’s government authorized the march, unleashing a furious reaction from left-wing members of his coalition and testing the unity of the government.

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

“The opposition is digging for the problems that will embarrass the government and create rifts within it,” said Tamar Hermann, professor of political science at the Open University of Israel. “They are always looking for a spoke to stick in his wheel.”

One of the most pressing dilemmas for the coalition is the settlement of Jabal Subeih, a hill near Nablus in the northern West Bank. Mr Lapid, the foreign minister, wants to proceed with the eviction, while a member of Mr Bennett’s party, Nir Orbach, visited the site on Thursday to show his solidarity with its residents.

Settlers pitched several tents there on May 3, naming the new hamlet of Evyatar Borovski, a settler killed by a Palestinian in 2013.

The settlement has grown at an unusual rate and now includes around 50 one-story houses, several paved streets, each with its own sign, as well as a Wi-Fi network, a synagogue, an electricity generator. and a water storage system.

The leaders of the establishment say that they act only on their own initiative and that they have received only crowdfunding. But the site was quickly exploited by Likud, which sent representatives to Evyatar to raise its profile and sought to make it a corner issue for the new government.

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

But Evyatar, built without permission from the Israeli state, is illegal under Israeli law.

Mr Bennett said in 2012 that he would consider it inadmissible to deport settlers to the West Bank, and that he would refuse a military order to do so. The issue could ultimately be decided by the High Court.

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

“He is forbidden to touch this memorial site,” said Mr Borovski’s widow, Sofia, who now lives part of the week in the colony. “If they take the community out,” she added, “it would be like killing my husband again.”

Mr Bennett’s office declined to comment.

The view across the valley, in the Palestinian village of Beita, was very different. Designating an olive grove descended from the new settlement, a retired farmer said he helped his father plant his trees in the 1960s, before Israel captured land from Jordan.

“I can’t forget my father, digging in the dirt, sweat streaming down his face,” said farmer, Mohammed Khabeisa, 68. “This memory kindles a fire in me when I see these dogs on this hill.”

Mr. Khabeisa’s family is one of 17 people who report owning land on the settlement site for generations. Twenty-two other families claim adjacent land blocked by soldiers protecting the settlers. None of them have the deeds to prove ownership, and Israeli military officials have said it is not clear who owns the land.

The government department that oversees civilian aspects of the occupation has acknowledged that at least five families, including Mr. Khabeisa’s, paid property taxes on plots in the hill area in the 1930s, before the Jordan did not take control of the territory, although the exact location of these plots was not clear.

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

Palestinian officials say at least four Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers firing live ammunition during the protests, and hundreds injured. Mr. Khabeisa has a new scar above his left knee after an Israeli soldier fired a tear gas canister at him during a demonstration in early June, he said, hitting him at close range.

For Palestinians like Mr. Khabeisa, the question of whether or not Mr. Bennett will support the destruction of the settlement means little in the long term. They see the settlers, soldiers, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Netanyahu as ultimately part of the same system that has gradually taken over more and more land in the West Bank since 1967.

“Every government has the same goal,” Khabeisa said. “Land seizure”.

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