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Under the new coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel is experiencing growing violence and one of the worst internal crises it has faced in recent years. Palestinian deaths continue as raids by the Israeli army persist, and the recent attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem has revived the darkest ghosts of the Second Intifada. In parallel, the prime minister is seeking to reform the judiciary system, sparking fear among critics for the future of democracy in Israel.
CIA director William Burns recently expressed concern about the current situation in Israel and Palestine. He stated that it bears an «unfortunate resemblance» to the atmosphere of the Second Intifada 20 years ago that he personally lived through as a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps.
During a live interview on February 2 at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.), he admitted, fresh from a trip to the region, that it is going to be a «great challenge» to work with the Israeli intelligence and security services and Palestinians to prevent «outbursts of violence.»
Since the start of the year, Israeli forces have killed more than 40 Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In what appeared to be a response to one of the raids that left nine dead in Jenin, on January 27 a Palestinian shot dead seven Israelis as they were leaving an East Jerusalem synagogue. On February 10, a young Israeli and two children were also killed in an intentional hit-and-run.
According to Middle East Eye, in 2022, at least 220 Palestinians were killed in Israeli military attacks in the occupied territories, including 48 children. It is the highest casualty number in the West Bank since 2005, the year many consider the end of the Second Intifada. On the other hand, Palestinian militants killed 30 Israelis, including a child, the highest number since 2008.
More Israeli raids, new Palestinian militias
The inaction or ineffectiveness of the Palestinian Authority against the occupation and last year’s context of violence has led to the birth of new armed Palestinian resistance groups: the Jenin Brigades (Jenin), and the «Lion’s Den» (in Nablus). The groups have a presence in these two areas and, to a lesser extent, in Ramallah, Hebron and Jerusalem. Formed in just a few months, they call for direct confrontation with the Israeli army and the Jewish settlers.
In 2022, 220 Palestinians and 30 Israelis were killed in attacks, the highest numbers since 2005 and 2008, respectively
After the Second Intifada, the armed resistance in the West Bank was stifled by the still-serving president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. However, these newly organized armed groups are escaping his control and leadership. In fact, they are not publicly linked to any political party, although they have received support from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and funding from Hamas and Islamic Jihad (the main Palestinian factions in Gaza).
Some believe the days of the militias are numbered due to how quickly they formed and their militarization´s lack of any solid organizational and leadership structure to guarantee their continuity. Moreover, the raids by the Israeli army in the Palestinian territories are directed precisely against them.
A reform or a regime change?
On the domestic front, the controversial judicial reform that the Israeli prime minister intends to carry out has unleashed one of the worst crises in recent years. Netanyahu claims that it is an amendment to correct the imbalance of power between the legislature and the judiciary, but his critics see it as a true assault on the independence of judges and, therefore, on one of the pillars of the democratic system.
The reform would give the government control over the appointment of judges. In addition, it proposes to restrict the power of review of legislation by the Supreme Court; allow Parliament to overturn the High Court’s power to strike down laws; prevent legislation from passing through a judicial filter at the beginning of the legislative process; and prevent judges from evaluating administrative decisions by the government and other agencies.
Israel’s president sees the country on the brink of “constitutional collapse» and calls for dialogue between the government and the opposition
Former Israeli attorney general Avichai Mandelblit declared on a television program on February 9 that the judicial reform undertaken by Netanyahu is in fact a «regime change» that «will eliminate the independence of the legal system from end to end.» In addition, he accused the prime minister of promoting the reform to bring the trial against him for cases of corruption, fraud, bribery and breach of trust to an improper end.
Before being appointed attorney general, Mandelblit was Netanyahu’s government secretary between 2013 and 2016. He was responsible for the indictment of the prime minister in 2019 after the 2016 police investigation opened. It was the first time that an attorney general indicted a sitting prime minister.
Given that, if this reform is approved, the judges will be appointed by the prime minister, meaning that «they will have a personal loyalty to the ruler, personal loyalty to the minister, not to the State». And “then the law has no supremacy, and if there is no supremacy to the law the fortress falls,” Mandelblit said. He also condemned the fact that the reform was not mentioned during the electoral campaign: «No one said they were going to change the values of the Declaration of Independence during the election campaign.»
Protest against judicial reform
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Jerusalem and other cities this Monday, February 13, to protest the judicial overhaul that, they consider, threatens their democratic system. Protesters gathered in front of the Knesset – Israel’s Parliament – as the legislation passed its first reading in a highly agitated plenary session.
Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, expressed concern at seeing the country “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.” He called for dialogue between the government and the opposition to reach a consensus on the reform. The coalition affirms that “dialogue is important” and that they will do “everything possible to establish it”. However, they accused the opposition of preferring «violent and unacceptable belligerence.» For its part, the opposition demands that the legislative process be halted before sitting down to negotiate.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid declared: «We will not shut ourselves at home while they try to turn the State of Israel into a dark dictatorship and silence us.” Benny Ganz, former defense minister, and from the opposition, said that the government coalition is «dividing people and killing democracy.» He added, referring to recent weeks of violence and insecurity, that National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir must be fired and “replaced with an experienced and responsible figure.»
These protests had been recurring on Saturdays in recent weeks, but the start of the legislative process has been key to a massive mobilization. U.S. President Joe Biden has also called on the Israeli Prime Minister to reach a consensus. The reform presents serious economic consequences too, as investors and big businesses are withdrawing their capital from the country as a result.