Bennett vs West Bank Settlers, round one

The first major showdown was a bit like a match between England and Germany.


Jews seen at the illegal Israeli outpost of Evyatar, in the West Bank, on June 28, 2021. Photo by Flash90 *** Local Caption *** אביתר התנחלות מתנחלים בתים

It could have been a scene at any moment in the past fifty years in the West Bank. A bare hilltop, mobile homes, tents and makeshift huts, bearded men in work-clothes, women with scarves and long-flowing dresses and, wherever you go, many children.

The children were those of the young men and women, and teenagers flowing in from religious high-schools across the country, eager to help with building and, in between work, studying in the dusty temporary bet midrash. Another Jewish settlement had sprung up on the hills of Judea and Samaria.

The children of Israel returning to their homeland.

Those were the scenes again this week at Evyatar, the hilltop settlement that was built in just six weeks to become a village of over fifty families, 200 children and, according to one reckoning, 3,000 teenage volunteers. Despite the defence ministry’s threats to evict them at the end of the week, the atmosphere was relaxed. It was, after all, the start of the summer holidays.

The first major showdown between the new Bennett government and the settler movement was a bit like a match between England and Germany. The two sides know each other well and, while there was much at stake, they both knew this was just one in a long line of confrontations – and the loser would get another chance before long.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies in the Knesset may call this “a dangerous left-wing government” but, as far as the settler leaders are concerned, Naftali Bennett is a former CEO of the Yesha Council — the umbrella organisation of settlement municipal councils — and there are plenty of other allies in his government. They’re not fazed by the left-wingers in the government, either. Some of the biggest settlements were built under left-wing governments.

“Our vision is that the government issues an official decision founding the Israeli town of Evyatar,” smiled Amichai Ben-David, the town’s spokesman. “But we know that’s not going to happen right now so we’re looking for something pragmatic.” Over the week, they quietly negotiated both with Bennett’s office and with Defence Minister Benny Gantz. On Sunday, they received a proposal from Bennett allowing them to leave the buildings in place and to operate a yeshiva there with staff at the beginning of the Elul term, in a month-and-a-half. It was more than they had hoped for, but they were sceptical.

It was indeed too good and within hours it transpired that Gantz wasn’t behind the proposal and was insisting that a legal inspection take place first of all, to ensure the land hadn’t been used by the neighbouring Palestinian villages in the past. Only after that would he agree to open the yeshiva.

On Tuesday night a new proposal arrived from the government. They would allow the buildings to remain but a military unit would move in to secure the area until the legal inspection had taken place.

This proposal was accepted. It left the settlement in place and kept alive the prospect of returning to the homes later. “The government found a noble way to engage with us. No arm-wrestling,” said Daniella Weiss, the 76 year-old settler leader whose Nachala movement had built Evyatar overnight.

They had achieved an Israeli foothold in a strategic location, overlooking Tapuach Junction, keeping the Palestinian villages of Beita, Qabalan and Yatma apart. That’s how the settler enterprise has kept growing for half a century — by working with every Israeli government, no matter its political hue.

This one will be no exception.


surfeit of hope

l For the last six months, ever since the Covid-19 vaccination programme began, the world has been looking to Israel as the benchmark for a country that has successfully vaccinated a large proportion of its population. In the next couple of weeks, the world will have something new to learn: how a country deals with an unexpected surplus of vaccinations.

Thanks to the push to buy as large a quantity as possible of Pfizer’s BioNTech vaccine as soon as it became available, Israel is now left with at least a million doses that are set to expire by the end of July.

An agreement to supply these vaccines to the Palestinian Authority came unstuck two weeks ago, when the Palestinian leadership protested that they were about to expire.

(They had known this all along, but the fact that the expiration date had been mentioned in the Israeli government press release caused a furious outcry in the Palestinian media and led to the abandonment of the plan.)

With the latest outbreak of the Delta Variant in Israel, which has so far affected mainly children, the government has stepped up the vaccination of children over the age of twelve, but the pace isn’t picking up fast enough to use more than a quarter of the doses which are about to expire.

It’s not just Israel’s vaccination success which has thrown up unexpected problems.

Both the speedy development of a number of vaccines and the ramping-up of production — by now nearly three billion doses have been administered worldwide — have been the shining lights of optimism in the long dreary night of coronavirus. But as the global stockpile of vaccines has grown, the problems of getting them into the arms of people around the world who do not live in countries with efficient public health systems is becoming more evident.

COVAX, the initiative launched by the World Health Organisation to help developing countries get access to vaccines, is facing a logistical nightmare. Large numbers of doses are finally becoming available to it in the coming months, but the capabilities of many of the countries who desperately need th jabs remain depressingly limited.

Israel isn’t part of the COVAX initiative. There are a number of reasons for this. Israel is not a vaccine manufacturer, so it cannot commit to supplying the hundreds of millions of doses necessary. The assumption within the Israeli health establishment all along was that any surpluses would go to the Palestinians anyway. Then there’s the inbuilt suspicion that Israel has towards large international organisations, where it has usually been the target of criticism and discrimination. Israel would prefer to make its deals individually, state-to-state.

The deal with the Palestinians may be resurrected at the last moment, though that is unlikely now that it has become a matter of national pride.

Another state may be located. But it’s looking increasingly likely that hundreds of thousands of doses will have to be destroyed at the end of July. Who would have believed just six months ago that there would be too many Covid-19 doses to use?


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