Israel’s fragile new government has shown little interest in addressing the decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, but it may not have a choice.
Jewish ultranationalists are already staging provocations aimed at splitting the coalition and bringing about a return to right-wing rule. In doing so, they risk escalating tensions with the Palestinians weeks after an 11-day Gaza war was halted by an informal cease-fire.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s best hope for maintaining his ruling coalition which consists of eight parties from across the political spectrum will be to manage the conflict, the same approach favored by his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, for most of his 12-year rule. But that method failed to prevent three Gaza wars and countless smaller eruptions.
That’s because the status quo for Palestinians involves expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank, looming evictions in Jerusalem, home demolitions, deadly shootings and an array of discriminatory measures that two well-known human rights groups say amount to apartheid. In Gaza, which has been under a crippling blockade since the Hamas militant group seized power in 2007, it’s even worse.
“They talk about it being a government of change, but it’s just going to entrench the status quo,” said Waleed Assaf, a Palestinian official who coordinates protests against West Bank settlements. “Bennett is a copy of Netanyahu, and he might even be more radical.”
Bennett said little about the Palestinians in a speech before being sworn in on Sunday. “Violence will be met with a firm response,” he warned, adding that “security calm will lead to economic moves, which will lead to reducing friction and the conflict.”
Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg, a member of the dovish Meretz party, told Israeli television’s Channel 12 that she believes the peace process is important, but that the new government has agreed, “at least at this stage, not to deal with it.”
The government faces an early challenge on Jabal Sabeeh, a hilltop in the northern West Bank where dozens of Jewish settlers rapidly established an outpost last month, paving roads and setting up living quarters that they say are now home to dozens of families.
The settlement, named Eviatar after an Israeli who was killed in an attack in 2013, was built without the permission of Israeli authorities on land the Palestinians say is privately owned. Israeli troops have evacuated settlers from the site three times before, but they returned after an Israeli was killed in a shooting attack nearby early last month.
Clearing them out again would embarrass Bennett and other right-wing members of the coalition, who already face fierce criticism and even death threats for allying with centrist and left-wing factions to oust Netanyahu.
The government faces a similar dilemma over a parade through east Jerusalem organized by ultranationalists that is due to be held Tuesday. The march risks setting off the kind of protests and clashes that helped ignite last month’s Gaza war.
Meanwhile, Palestinians from the adjacent village of Beita have held regular protests against the settlement outpost. Demonstrators have thrown stones, and Israeli troops have fired tear gas and live ammunition. Three protesters have been killed, including 17-year-old Mohammed Hamayel, who was shot dead Friday. Initial reports said he was 15.
“I always taught him you should stand up for your rights without infringing on the rights of others,” his father, Said, said at a mourning event attended by dozens of villagers. He described his son as a popular teenager who got good grades and was a natural leader.
“Thank God, I’m very proud of my son,” he said. “Even in martyrdom he distinguished himself.”
The villagers fear that if the outpost remains, it will eventually swallow up even more of their land, growing and merging with some of the more than 130 authorized settlements across the occupied West Bank, where nearly 500,000 settlers live.
“We’re not a political game in the hands of Bennett or Netanyahu,” said Mohammed Khabeesa, a resident who says he owns land near the settler outpost that he can no longer access without a military permit.
“The settlements are like a cancer,” he said. “Everyone knows they begin small, and then they take root and expand at people’s expense until they reach our homes.”
A spokeswoman for the settler organization behind the outpost did not respond to a request for comment.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war, territories the Palestinians want for a future state. The settlements are seen by the Palestinians and much of the international community as a major obstacle to peace because they make it nearly impossible to create a contiguous, viable state of Palestine alongside Israel.
Every Israeli government since 1967 has expanded the settlements, and this one is unlikely to be an exception. Bennett briefly served as head of a major settler organization, and his party is one of three in the coalition that strongly support settlements.
Hagit Ofran, an expert on settlements with the Israeli rights group Peace Now, says the settlers have always used illegal outposts to challenge Israeli authorities, a trend she expects to accelerate under the new government.
“Because the settlers feel this government is not their government, challenging it, psychologically, will be much, much easier,” she said.
She hopes the new government will at least put the brakes on larger settlement projects, including massive infrastructure that will pave the way for future growth.
“I think it’s more easy politically to stop big budgets and big projects rather than evicting an outpost,” she said. “I would rather see that the government is stopping the big projects rather than fighting over every hilltop. The settlers have the opposite interest.”