Israel’s Netanyahu slammed by far right after violence, rocket strikes

JERUSALEM — Israel’s government faced crises on multiple fronts Saturday as far-right officials denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to this week’s cross-border strikes and twin attacks on civilians, and as organizers of mass anti-government protests said the demonstrations would proceed as planned later in the day.

Israeli police raids on one of Islam’s holiest sites this week sparked a days-long spasm of violence here that, for 12 hours Thursday, threatened to spill out across the region. The military launched airstrikes on what it said were Hamas-affiliated targets in Gaza and southern Lebanon after rockets were fired into Israeli airspace from both areas, wounding one civilian and damaging buildings.

De-escalation followed, on the regional front at least, after Netanyahu’s cabinet and Israel’s defense establishment voted unanimously in favor of limited strikes on Lebanese territory which, ultimately, did not cause any casualties or draw immediate retaliation.

But by Friday evening, tensions were rising again, this time domestically, as two British Israeli sisters were shot dead in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley and an Italian national was killed in Tel Aviv when a resident of the majority-Arab city of Kafr Qassem rammed his car into a crowd of tourists.

Netanyahu returned to office late last year as part of a new governing coalition, the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history. The response from the coalition’s leading players this week underscored just how delicate his position has become, as the more-extreme figures on whom he depends to govern call for harsher action.

Israel’s decades-long conflict stems back to the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states after the anti-Jewish atrocities during World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced in the war that followed the partition, and the territory today is divided into the state of Israel and the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Since the new government took office in December, violence has surged in the West Bank, in particular, as Jewish settlers there have stepped up attacks against Palestinian residents and Israeli security forces carry out increasingly deadly raids targeting a new generation of Palestinian militants.

Bezalel Smotrich — a settler leader and high-ranking member of Netanyahu’s cabinet — said Friday that his willingness to tolerate action that does not include more extreme measures in the territories was waning. The government has already accelerated a demolition program targeting the homes of terror suspects, a policy rights groups have described as collective punishment.

“The fact that checkpoints around [the West Bank city of] Nablus are open is an intolerable crime,” said Smotrich, who has administrative powers over Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, in a message to supporters cited by the Times of Israel.

“We’ve been speaking about this for weeks. I try very hard to be loyal in outward appearances and not attack the government I am a member of, but it can’t continue like this,” he said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a former settler activist and lawyer for settlers accused of violently attacking Palestinians, also criticized the government Thursday for not responding more forcefully to the cross-border rocket attacks.

“I have a certain influence, but it’s certainly not enough, and I often find myself frustrated by certain decisions,” he wrote on Facebook although news reports covering his comments also pointed out the unanimity of the decision by the security cabinet, of which he is a member.

The government has been mired in crisis since it took office four months ago, primarily over a controversial plan to weaken the Supreme Court by overhauling the country’s judiciary. After months of furious street protests, Netanyahu announced in March that he was pausing his legislative push. On Saturday, protest organizers said that they would rally in the city of Tel Aviv for a fourteenth consecutive week.

“Since the government was sworn in, its leaders have been engaged in a judicial coup that is tearing the people apart, neglecting our security, damaging the economy, and harming Israel’s status in the world,” protest leaders said in a statement shared via WhatsApp. “During this current security escalation, the ministers have been busy inciting instead of fulfilling their roles.”

They said the rally in Tel Aviv, due to start at 6:30 p.m. local time, would begin with a minute’s silence in honor of the victims of Friday’s attacks.

What to know about Israel’s protests and judicial overhaul

The judicial reform plan, which would give the government greater power to choose judges, including those presiding over Netanyahu’s corruption trial, has split the country. It has pitted liberal, secular Israelis against hardliners and religious conservatives.

In recent weeks, hundreds of thousands rallied weekly in the streets and a brief wave of strikes threatened to bring public institutions to their knees. Ultimately, it was dissent from within the government’s own ranks that forced Netanyahu to press pause, after Defense Minister Yoav Gallant warned that it was dividing the military, and was therefore a threat to national security.

Officially, Netanyahu fired Gallant the following day, but he still remains in position, a twist that tightens the bind in which the prime minister finds himself, analysts say. Following through with the changes could stir more unrest, on the streets and in the military. But backing down could also draw more ire from within his coalition.

On Friday, Netanyahu and Gallant stood side by side at the site of the Jordan Valley attack as they vowed to catch the perpetrator. The slain sisters, aged 21 and 16, had been residents of the West Bank’s Efrat settlement.

“For this challenge as well, we are standing united, unified, sure of our righteousness,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks. “We will act together with total backing for our forces.”

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