Israeli coalition faces early test over illegal West Bank settlement
Leftwing Israelis have accused the country’s new government of kowtowing to the right over the handling of an illegal settlement near the West Bank city of Nablus, in what is viewed as an early test of the ideologically divided coalition’s stability.
About 50 Jewish families who moved to the Evyatar settlement over the last two months, building on a hilltop claimed by Palestinian olive farmers, have agreed to vacate the land on Friday afternoon.
Under the terms of a deal thrashed out this week by the pro-settlement prime minister, Naftali Bennett, however, their homes will stay standing and a military base, which is legal, will be established there. The defence ministry will then perform a land survey to determine whether the area can be claimed by the Israeli state, in which case a civilian religious school will also be built at the site.
Since local Palestinians are likely to have difficulty producing deeds and documents proving ownership, the deal is expected to pave the way for the settlers’ return in the near future.
Who is Naftali Bennett?
Israel’s new prime minister is a far-right former settler leader, who once served as a senior aide and adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu and ran Israel’s education and defence ministries in his governments.
Bennett, who wants to annex most of the occupied West Bank, is ideologically close to Netanyahu and was once a member of his ruling Likud party. However, the 49-year-old fell foul of his old boss, who has vowed to work in opposition to topple Bennett’s “dangerous government” and return to power.
A stalwart of Israel’s religious right, Bennett is a former leader of Yesha, the main Jewish settler movement in the West Bank. He has made settlement expansion, the annexation of Palestinian land and the rejection of a Palestinian state a feature of his political platform.
“I would not give another centimetre to the Arabs,” he said in 2018. “We have to drop the idea that if we give them more territory the world will love us.”
The son of immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett became a hi-tech millionaire after selling an anti-fraud software company to a US security firm. On some issues, the former commando is less conservative than his colleagues on the hard right, including gay rights and the relationship between religion and state. Oliver Holmes
“Evyatar outpost is illegal. Even the settlers admit it. The outline of evacuation of the outpost is the laundering of loot. Building a military base and then allowing a yeshiva is not a solution outline, it is a fault outline. Justice would be to evacuate the outpost, and allow the villages of Beita, Kablan and Yitma to own the land,” tweeted the Knesset member Gaby Lasky of the social-democratic Meretz party.
Four Palestinians have been killed and dozens injured in protests and clashes with Israeli police over the settlement since its establishment in early May: according to local media. On Friday, there were skirmishes between about 450 Palestinians and Israeli security forces ahead of the evacuation.
Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war approximately 475,000 Jewish settlers have built on land in the West Bank captured and occupied by Israel, a practice considered by most of the international community as illegal.
Evyatar, which sprung up unusually quickly this spring because both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities were preoccupied with elections, civil unrest and war in the Gaza Strip, is also illegal under Israeli law.
Palestinians in neighbouring villages have protested fiercely against the new settlement, including disrupting construction work taking place at night by burning tires to create smoke and flashing torches and lasers at the hilltop.
While Friday’s evacuation may defuse tensions for the time being, both Palestinians and the Israeli left are worried about the precedent Evyatar sets for the new government’s policy on settlement building.
“There is no chief of staff,” the Knesset member Mosi Raz of Meretz said in an interview on Israel’s 103FM radio on Friday, referring to how the defence establishment and Israeli army, which ordered Evyatar’s demolition, had been sidelined by Bennett’s deal.
“These settlers are our chief of staff. This government is currently 20 degrees to the right compared with the previous one and it is dangerous. It will crash if it continues like this.”
Israel’s two-week-old government was formed after the Yamima party’s Bennett, and his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, managed to bring together parties across the political spectrum with one shared goal: ousting the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from his 12-year stint in office.
The coalition encompasses leftists who oppose settlement building, rightwingers such as Bennett, who previously led a key settler lobbying group, and for the first time, members of an Arab party. An agreement to focus on areas of common ground in governance has quickly come unstuck, however, as the Evyatar issue has shown.
Next week the Knesset is scheduled to vote on extending controversial emergency legislation that bans Palestinians married to Israeli citizens from getting Israeli citizenship and which rights groups say prevents thousands of families from reuniting and living together.
The law has been renewed annually since it was introduced during the peak of the second intifada in 2003, but now both elements of the government and opposition are unwilling to back it. Netanyahu’s Likud party hopes the impasse will damage the new government and trigger fresh elections.