Concerns are rising in Israel over the actions of the new government and the potential for a serious escalation with Palestinians in the West Bank.
A large anti-government protest took place in Tel Aviv last weekend and there is a prospect of further demonstrations in the city and in Jerusalem.
Attempts by National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to force the police to use water cannon against protestors have reportedly been rejected, but the police have agreed to take a tougher stance on demonstrators displaying Nazi symbols.
In heated comments on Tuesday, former prime minister Yair Lapid criticised proposed judicial reforms as “extreme regime change” and former defence minister Benny Gantz warned that they could lead to “civil war” urging Israelis to “go out en masse and demonstrate; it’s time to make the country tremble”.
Gantz’s successor, Yoav Gallant, called for calm saying the country is “entering dangerous territory”.
In response to the comments made by Lapid and Gantz, a coalition politician suggested that they be arrested for “treason against the state”. The suggestion was endorsed by a second politician but slapped down by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said that “in a democratic country we do not arrest the heads of opposition”.
The exchange of accusations and threats prompted Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, to issue a statement calling on politicians to “lower the heat”.
“The values of Israel’s Declaration of Independence are our country’s compass; I will not allow them to be harmed,” he said. “This is a sensitive and explosive time in Israeli public life.”
Growing tensions with Palestinians
The events, with the new government less than a month old, show the level of friction between Israelis themselves, and against a backdrop of growing tensions with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
“It’s still under three weeks since it was sworn in, but we’ve already seen intense and growing conflict between the new government and the opposition,” Richard Pater, Director of the British-Israeli think tank BICOM told Sky News.
Israeli minister bans Palestinian flag from public spaces
Israeli minister accused of ‘deliberate provocation’ after visit
Benjamin Netanyahu sworn in as Israel’s PM for sixth time
“The plans announced by the new justice minister – which would, if fully implemented, radically diminish the power of the judiciary and give unchecked powers to the elected government – have caused outrage among opposition groups.”
The proposed reforms will give the government control over appointment of judges, and allow Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to reintroduce any law that a court annuls, if a majority of politicians vote in favour.
Netanyahu has defended the reforms, insisting they will strengthen Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu, who is prime minster for a sixth time, historically likes to position himself in the centre of his cabinet; this time, however, he finds himself towards the left and seemingly beholden to powerful right-wing voices in his coalition.
“Ultimately it will be down to Netanyahu to decide how far he is prepared to let his own right-wing flank deliver a decisive blow to the judiciary or if he will adopt a more conciliatory approach,” is Pater’s assessment.
Already this year, five Palestinians have been killed by Israeli military, three of them children in their teens. On Wednesday an Israeli was stabbed in the head in the South Hebron Hills; his attacker, a Palestinian, was shot dead.
A short visit last week by the far-right minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to Al Aqsa compound in Jerusalem was controversial but carried off without incident. It did however receive worldwide condemnation, both from Arab states and traditional Israeli allies. It’s unlikely that another visit by the politician would pass without a response.
Although the visit was in line with the law governing the status quo – that non-Muslims are allowed access to the site at certain times of the day but must not publicly pray – it was nonetheless seen as a highly provocative move because of Ben-Gvir’s well-documented position on the site which is holy to both Jews and Muslims.
He has repeatedly said he wants to change the rules on Temple Mount, as it is known to Jews, although the official government line is that the status quo will remain.
While violent clashes between the IDF and armed Palestinian militants in the West Bank are common, they’ve largely remained confined to a few areas, specifically the towns of Jenin and Nablus. Attacks have been launched on Israeli checkpoints too.
Israeli forces carrying out raids to arrest and eliminate militants are regularly met with violent resistance, but the lack of co-ordination between the various Palestinian groups, so far, has prevented more widespread violence and led some to conclude a third intifada isn’t imminent.
“In my point of view, there are four major components that are top of the agenda in today’s Israeli/Palestinian conflict,” says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of Islamic Affairs.
“Al Aqsa Mosque, the threat on the lives and dignity of Palestinian prisoners, the presence of more than 600,000 settlers in The West Bank, and continuous Israeli military violence and atrocities in Palestinian towns, villages and refugee camps.
“These are leading to a culture of hate and anarchy, as well as uncertainty in the absence of international presence to protect the Palestinian people and support their aspiration for freedom and independence.”
Alaa Tartir, an adviser at the Palestinian Policy Network, agrees: “Israel’s far-right government will do whatever it takes to protect its coalition and advance the goals of its members, which could include triggering an all-out escalation. After all, instrumentalising Palestinian suffering through aggression and incursions is a well-trodden approach by many previous Israeli governments.”
Hamas, the proscribed organisation that controls Gaza, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who are also based in the Strip, have so far refrained from firing rockets into Israel but have publicly stoked resistance amongst Palestinians in the occupied territories. Some believe it is inevitable that the various Palestinian factions will eventually mobilise; were that to happen, it would present a very dangerous moment.
The Israeli security cabinet voted this week on punitive measures against the Palestinian Authority, including withholding Palestinian tax revenues amounting to roughly $39 million (£32m). The money will be channelled to Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism instead.
The security cabinet also agreed a moratorium on Palestinian construction in much of the West Bank, and the Palestinian foreign minister was briefly detained and had his VIP status withdrawn when he re-entered from Jordan.
These moves are being seen as a retaliation by Israel to ongoing Palestinian attempts at the United Nations to refer the occupation to the International Court of Justice, however it’s feared they could lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority which already finds itself weakened by Palestinians angry at low living standards, and amid accusations the PA is complicit with Israel.
2022 was already the deadliest year since 2006 according to the United Nations and EU, with more than 150 Palestinians including 30 children killed. More than 20 Israelis also lost their lives in terror attacks.
Under the new government, Israeli policies towards Palestinians have hardened and there are fears amongst foreign diplomats in Jerusalem that tensions will only worsen, including talk of part-annexation of the West Bank.
Most observers conclude there is only so long that the current security dynamic is sustainable.
It’s hard to predict if, when or how violence might erupt, but the more tensions build, the greater the risk of it finally being triggered by something seemingly small.
Allies of Netanyahu point to his record of avoiding conflict where possible, but if events continue to unfold in the way they have over the past few weeks, this time it might be out of his control.