Israel’s extreme-right Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in occupied East Jerusalem earlier this month has raised an uproar in Arab and international circles. It has raised an uproar even inside Israel itself, due to the serious repercussions it will have on stability in the Palestinian territories. Especially after Palestinian factions implied they will not tolerate such actions.
Ben-Gvir’s excursion, which was blessed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was followed by unprecedented Israeli sanctions against members of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and punitive financial measures in response to Palestinian action at the UN, undertaken with full Arab support. The UN adopted a resolution to refer the issue of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories to the International Court of Justice, to offer a legal opinion on the nature of Israeli occupation and Israel’s responsibilities as an occupying power, something Israel itself rejects.
Israeli sanctions included voiding the passes of prominent Palestinian officials, including Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Malki, Deputy Head of Fatah Mahmoud Al-Aloul, and other key Fatah members. Israel also confiscated 139 million shekels ($40 million) of tax money collected by Israel on behalf of the PA according to agreements signed by both sides.
During a cabinet meeting on Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh warned that these successive Israeli measures could lead to the complete collapse of the PA, which is already suffering serious financial and existential troubles. “Total Israeli deductions since 2019 is two billion shekels [$570 million],” stated Shtayyeh. “These steps are a new war on the Palestinian people, their fate and fortunes. They are a war on the Palestinian Authority, its existence and achievements.”
The Israeli Army Radio reported on Monday that Israeli officials are warning that further harsh measures could lead to the collapse of the PA. However, they asserted that Israel’s decisions against the PA are carefully calculated and will not lead to its actual collapse.
Ben-Gvir himself began a series of severe measures including banning the Palestinian flag from being hoisted in Arab towns inside the occupied territories as well as any other areas under Israeli control, especially after the exuberant celebrations of the release of Karim Younis from Wadi Ara in northern Israel. Younis spent 40 years in prison as punishment for participating in an operation that killed one Israeli.
In a further provocation, Ben-Gvir also visited Israeli prisons and ordered the hanging of Israeli flags in front of cells holding Palestinian prisoners accused of attacks against Israel. He also ordered the transfer of prominent Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, who was sent to strict solitary confinement to prevent his interaction with leaders in other prisons. The move compounded tensions among the Palestinian prisoner population.
All these steps are a harbinger of the policies of Netanyahu’s radical right government which was sworn in at the end of last year. The PA had warned that this cabinet would be more hardline in dealing with Palestinians, and already Washington has taken steps to avoid an early clash between US President Joe Biden’s administration and Tel Aviv.
The Israeli media reported that Biden will send his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to Israel in mid-January. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will also visit this month to smooth out any anticipated tensions between the two administrations.
After Ben-Gvir’s unfortunate visit to Al-Aqsa, Washington reiterated the need to maintain the status quo of holy sites in occupied Jerusalem, and restated its support of a two-state solution as a way to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper anticipated that the new Israeli government is a conundrum for Biden’s national security team, which wants to redirect attention from the Middle East to rivals such as China and Russia. This is happening at a time when Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives and are eager to portray Biden as unfriendly to Israel ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.
According to the newspaper, potential disputes between Washington and Tel Aviv go beyond warnings against fuelling tensions with Palestinians. There is also the question of Russia, which is relying on Iran in its war on Ukraine, and the need not to upset the delicate security balance in the Middle East.
Other issues are causing tensions between the two sides. The new judicial reforms announced by far right Israeli Minister of Justice Yariv Levin also caused outrage within Israel, because they undermine the power of the judiciary. The Israeli opposition believes that these measures aim to protect Netanyahu from further legal action in the corruption cases against him, at the cost of destroying the Israeli judicial system. These are concerns and objections also voiced by US officials against anything that infringes on the powers and independence of Israel’s judiciary.
The Walla news website quoted unnamed US State Department officials as saying that shared principles of democracy are at the core of relations between the US and Israel, but the actions of the new Israeli government are disconcerting because they threaten Israel’s democratic institutions.
Judicial reform may impact the democratic system in Israel in a manner that could undermine Israeli-US relations which are not only based on mutual interests, but also common values, according to the US official.
The apprehension surrounding the arrival of the new Israeli government a few weeks ago has raised fears of military escalation between armed Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip and Israel, especially since these factions warned that any attempt to alter the status quo in occupied Jerusalem is a red line that should not be crossed.
After Ben-Gvir’s hapless visit to Al-Aqsa, the Israeli army reported a failed attempt to fire a missile from the Gaza Strip into Israel, which Israeli analysts believe is a sign that clashes could escalate once again with the factions in Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are calling on Washington to intervene to block steps that the radical right Israeli government has announced and could soon begin implementing. They are also asking Arab countries and the world at large to take a firm stand against Israeli abuses and violations, according to PA Spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh.
Prominent Palestinian officials have said they may resort to implementing decisions regarding revising relations with or suspending recognition of Israel, in response to the new government’s measures. However, the PA does not have a clear plan to act on this resolution and its political and economic repercussions, especially in the light of intra-Palestinian division and the fact that most of the world is distracted by more pressing political and security issues.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 12 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly