Israel is experiencing growing concern about the actions of its new government and the possibility of a serious escalation in relations with the Palestinians in West Bank.
Last weekend, a large anti-government demonstration took place in Tel Aviv. There is also the possibility of more protests in Jerusalem and elsewhere.
Itamar Bengvir, the National Security Minister, tried to force police officers to use water cannon to disperse protestors but they were rejected. However, the police are now willing to take a more aggressive stance against demonstrators who display Nazi symbols.
On Tuesday, ex-prime minister Yair Lepid called proposed judicial reforms “extreme regime changes” and ex-defense minister Benny Gantz warned they could lead to civil war. He urged Israelis to “go out en Masse and demonstrate; it is time to make this country tremble.”
Yoav Gallant (Gantz’s successor), called for calm, saying that the country was “entering dangerous territory”.
A coalition politician suggested they be detained for “treason against state” in response to Lapid’s and Gantz’s comments. A second politician supported the suggestion, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected it. He stated that in a democracy we don’t arrest heads of opposition.
After the exchange of threats and accusations, Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president, issued a statement urging politicians to “lower heat”.
He stated, “The values of Israel’s Declaration of Independence are the compass of our country; I will not permit them to be damaged.” “This is an explosive and sensitive time in Israeli public lives.”
Tensions are rising with the Palestinians
These events, which are less than a month old and with the new government, demonstrate the level of friction between Israelis, as well as the backdrop of increasing tensions with Palestinians within the occupied West Bank.
Sky News’ Richard Pater, Director at BICOM, said that although it has been less than three weeks since the swearing-in ceremony, there have already been intense and growing conflicts between the new government’s leadership and the opposition.
Opposition groups have reacted furiously to “the plans of the new justice minister” that would, if fully implemented and radically reduce the power of the judiciary, give unchecked power to the elected government.
The reforms proposed will give the government power over the appointment of judges and allow Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) to reintroduce any law that has been annulled by a court if the majority of politicians votes in favor.
Netanyahu has stood by the reforms and insisted that they would strengthen Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu, the sixth prime minister, has a history of preferring to be in the centre his cabinet. This time however, he is leaning towards the left and seems to be dependent on powerful right-wing voices in the coalition.
Pater says that Netanyahu will ultimately decide if he will let his right-wing flank deliver a blow to the judiciary, or if he will take a more conciliatory approach.
Five Palestinians, three of whom were teenagers, have already been shot dead by the Israeli military this year. An Israeli soldier was attacked in the South Hebron Hills and stabbed in his head. His attacker, a Palestinian, was killed.
Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right minister, made a brief visit to Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem last week. Although it was controversial, the visit went without incident. However, it was condemned worldwide by both traditional Israeli allies and Arab states. It is unlikely that the politician will return without receiving a response.
The visit was legal according to the law governing the status quo – non-Muslims can access the site at specific times but must not publicly pray – but it was seen as a provocative move due to Ben-Gvir’s well-documented position regarding the holy site, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
He repeatedly stated that he would like to change the Temple Mount rules, as they are known to Jews. However, the official government line is that it will not be changed.
Although violent clashes between IDF soldiers and militants from the West Bank are quite common, they have mainly been restricted to a handful of areas, namely Jenin and Nablus. There have also been attacks on Israeli checkpoints.
Israeli forces conducting raids to eliminate militants are often met with violence. However, the lack of coordination between Palestinian groups has prevented widespread violence. Some have concluded that a third intifada may not be imminent.
“From my perspective, there are four main components that are top of the agenda today’s Israeli/Palestinian war,” Mahdi Abdul Hadi (chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of Islamic Affairs) says.
“Al Aqsa Mosque is a threat to the lives and dignity Palestinian prisoners, the presence more than 600,000.settlers in The West Bank and ongoing Israeli military violence and atrocities within Palestinian towns, villages, refugee camps and villages.
“These are leading towards a culture of hatred and anarchy as well as uncertainty in regard to the absence of international presence to support the Palestinian people’s aspiration for independence and protection.”
Alaa Tartir is a consultant at the Palestinian Policy Network. He said that Israel’s far-right government would do anything to defend its coalition and advance its goals, which could mean triggering an all out escalation. Many Israeli governments have used the same strategy of facilitating Palestinian suffering through invasions and aggressions in the past.
Hamas, which is a proscribed organization that controls Gaza, as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (also based in Gaza), have so far not fired rockets into Israel, but have encouraged resistance amongst Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Many believe that it is likely that various Palestinian factions will eventually mobilize. If that happens, it would be a very dangerous time.
This week, the Israeli security cabinet voted on punitive actions against the Palestinian Authority. These included withholding tax revenues from Palestinians amounting to approximately $39 million (PS32m). Instead, the money will go to Israeli victims and survivors of Palestinian terrorism.
Also, the security cabinet agreed to a moratorium for Palestinian construction in large parts of the West Bank. The Palestinian foreign minister was briefly held and his VIP status was withdrawn when he returned from Jordan.
These actions are being viewed as Israel’s retaliation to ongoing Palestinian attempts to refer the occupation at the United Nations. However, it is feared that they could lead to collapse of the Palestinian Authority, which already finds itself weakened by Palestinians angered at their low living standards and amid accusations that the PA is complicit in Israel.
According to the United Nations, 2022 was the most deadly year since 2006. More than 150 Palestinians were killed, including 30 children. Terror attacks claimed the lives of more than 20 Israelis.
The new Israeli government has made it more difficult for Israel to deal with Palestinians. There are concerns among foreign diplomats in Jerusalem about tensions that could escalate, even talk of an annexation of the West Bank.
Many observers believe that the current security dynamic cannot be sustained for too long.
Although it is difficult to predict when, how, or if violence will erupt, tensions build up and the likelihood of something small triggering them.
Allies of Netanyahu point out his track record of avoiding conflict wherever possible. But if things continue to unfold the way they have in recent weeks, it could be beyond his control.