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Unauthorized Settlement Creates Stress Test for Israel’s New Government

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JABAL SUBEIH, West Bank — When Israeli settlers took over a windswept hilltop in the West Bank last month, it became the latest of about 140 unauthorized settler outposts built there in recent decades. Aside from the Palestinian villagers who could no longer reach olive groves there, the encampment initially attracted little attention.

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

The settlement is illegal under Israeli law, and the Israeli Army has ordered it razed, subject to the approval of the government.

If the new right-wing prime minister, Naftali Bennett, backs the settlers, he will alienate the leftist and Arab members of his coalition. If he permits them to be evicted, he will allow the Israeli right to paint him as a turncoat. An eviction could come as soon as Sunday, but could be delayed by legal proceedings.

“This is the test of Naftali Bennett,” said Yoav Kisch, a lawmaker in the opposition Likud party, as he toured the settlement on Tuesday.

“If you are truly the prime minister and you actually have right-wing ideology in you, stop this wrong, twisted and fraudulent evacuation of Evyatar,” he added. “This is in your hands.”

Mr. Bennett’s dilemma embodies the tightrope his government is treading during its earliest days in office.

To win a parliamentary majority large enough to push his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, from power, Mr. Bennett and his centrist partner, Yair Lapid, assembled an ideologically incoherent alliance that ranges from leftists who oppose settlement expansion to hard-right politicians like Mr. Bennett who support building settlements across the occupied West Bank.

The bloc came together on a single issue — the need to remove Mr. Netanyahu — but governing has quickly proved harder work.

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

To some extent, the government has followed through on this pledge: Mr. Bennett and other government ministers presented a united front this week in their response to a sudden rise in coronavirus cases. They have moved quickly to strengthen ties with the Biden administration, filled dozens of vacant senior Civil Service positions and agreed to begin an inquiry into a disaster at a religious site that killed 45 people in April.

But the Palestinian question, and the 54-year occupation of the West Bank, have already proved impossible to sever 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 bars granting citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens. Under previous governments, the law has been extended each year without drama, but this year its extension is at risk because Arab and leftist members of the coalition oppose it.

That split has given Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, an opportunity: Likud has withdrawn its support for the bill, despite having always supported it. By allowing it to fail, Likud hopes to embarrass Mr. Bennett by highlighting how his government is reliant on Arabs and leftists.

Mr. Netanyahu had previously laid another trap for the Bennett government, deciding in his last week in office to allow far-right activists to schedule a provocative march on the second day of Mr. Bennett’s tenure. Mr. Bennett’s government allowed the march to take place, setting off a furious response from leftist members of his coalition and testing the government’s unity.

Disagreements also loom over the question of improving housing rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. And a discussion about allegations of apartheid in Israel, co-hosted by a leftist coalition member at the Israeli Parliament on Tuesday, highlighted the vast gulf in ideologies within the government bloc.

“The opposition is sniffing around to find the issues that will embarrass the government and create cleavages within it,” said Tamar Hermann, a professor of political science at the Open University of Israel. “They are incessantly looking for a spoke to stick into its wheel.”

One of the most pressing quandaries for the coalition is the settlement on 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 solidarity with its residents.

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

The settlement expanded unusually fast, and now includes about 50 one-story homes, several tarmac streets, each with its own street sign, as well a Wi-Fi network, a synagogue, an electricity generator and a water storage system.

The settlement leaders say they are acting only on their own initiative and received only crowdsourced funding. But the site was quickly instrumentalized by Likud, which sent representatives to Evyatar to raise its profile and sought to turn it into a wedge issue for the new government.

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

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

Mr. Bennett said in 2012 that he would consider it unconscionable to evict any settlers in 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 the eviction would outrage Mr. Bennett’s supporters, who believe that settlements in the West Bank are essential to Israel’s security and, for many, that the territory was among the lands promised to Jews by God.

“It’s forbidden for him to touch this memorial site,” said Mr. Borovski’s widow, Sofia, who now lives part of the week at the settlement. “If they remove the community,” she added, “it would be like killing my husband all over again.”

Mr. Bennett’s office declined to comment.

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

“I can’t forget my father, digging the land, sweat pouring down his face,” said the farmer, Mohammed Khabeisa, 68. “That memory raises a fire inside me when I see those dogs up on that hill.”

Mr. Khabeisa’s family is one of 17 that say they have owned land on the site of the settlement for generations. Twenty-two other families claim adjacent land that is blocked off 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 civil aspects of the occupation has acknowledged that at least five families, including Mr. Khabeisa’s, paid land tax on plots in the area of the hill during the 1930s, before Jordan seized control of the territory, though the exact whereabouts of those plots was unclear.

Fury over the settler takeover has led to daily protests and marches by Palestinian villagers, farmers and their supporters. They have thrown 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 effort to harry the settlers into leaving.

Palestinian officials say that at least four Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers firing live rounds during these protests, and hundreds injured. Mr. Khabeisa has a fresh scar above his left knee, after an Israeli soldier fired a tear-gas canister at him during a protest in early June, he said, hitting him at short range.

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

“Every government has the same goal,” said Mr. Khabeisa. “The seizure of land.”


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