JERUSALEM (AP) — Thousands of Israelis led by at least seven Cabinet ministers marched Monday to an evacuated West Bank settlement, in a defiant signal that Israel’s most right-wing government in history is determined to accelerate settlement building on occupied lands despite international opposition.
The mass rally also threatened to further raise tensions that have been heightened by days of unrest across the region over a contested Jerusalem holy site. In new violence, Israel troops killed a 15-year-old Palestinian boy during an arrest raid in the occupied West Bank.
Monday’s march took place in the northern West Bank — the scene of repeated violence in recent months. Thousands of Israeli police and army forces were reportedly deployed to secure the march, which added to the already combustible atmosphere that has accompanied the overlap of major Jewish and Muslim holy days. Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks surrounding the Jerusalem shrine.
The march to Eviatar, an unauthorized settlement outpost in the northern West Bank that was evacuated by the previous Israeli government in 2021, was being led by hard-line ultranationalist Jewish settlers.
Daniella Weiss, another settler leader, told Kan public radio that the ministers’ participation in the march could be a “therapy for the government to free yourselves from the dictates of the U.S. and Europe” concerning West Bank settlement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the most religious and ultranationalist government in Israel’s history. Several members of his Cabinet, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — both West Bank settlers — and at least 20 members of Knesset were taking part in the march.
Speaking at the march, Ben-Gvir said that “we are here to say that the Israeli nation is strong” and that “we are here and will remain here.”
Visits to Eviatar have been officially banned by the military since its evacuation, but that prohibition has been loosely enforced in recent months. Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said the military approved Monday’s march, saying it would be “highly monitored and highly protected.” Scores of families, nearly all of them Orthodox Jews, many of them pushing baby strollers, took part in the march.
Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have soared following last week’s police raid on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The hilltop compound where the mosque sits is the emotional ground zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Jews, it is known as the Temple Mount, their faith’s holiest site and the place where two Temples stood in antiquity. For Muslims, it is known as the Noble Sanctuary, home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
Dozens of Jewish visitors entered the site on Monday escorted by Israeli police for a second consecutive day. These tours by religious and nationalist Jews have increased in size and frequency in recent years, raising fears by Palestinians that Israel may partition the site. Israel insists it has no intention of changing a longstanding arrangement that permits Jewish visits, but not worship, at the Muslim-administered shrine.
Last week, Palestinians barricaded themselves inside Al-Aqsa with stones and firecrackers, demanding the right to pray there overnight, something Israel has in the past only allowed during the last 10 days of Ramadan. Police removed them by force, detaining hundreds and leaving dozens injured.
The violence was followed by rocket fire by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip, southern Lebanon, and Syria starting Wednesday, and Israeli airstrikes targeting those areas. Recent days have also seen Palestinian attacks that killed two Israeli sisters and an Italian tourist.
The Israeli army said its troops were operating in the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp next to Jericho in the West Bank. The Palestinian Health Ministry said 15-year-old Mohammed Balhan was killed by army fire.
The army said it entered the camp to arrest a wanted Palestinain suspect. It said residents opened fire and hurled explosives at the troops, who responded with live fire and “hits were identified.” It said the wanted suspect was arrested, and there were no Israeli casualties.
Palestinian attacks have killed at least 19 people, including one soldier, since the start of the year. At least 92 Palestinians and have been killed by Israeli fire so far this year, at least half of them affiliated with militant groups, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
Israel captured the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. It has built dozens of settlements that are now home to more than 700,000 Jewish settlers.
Most of the international community considers Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem for a future independent state.
Netanyahu’s government has made settlement expansion a top priority, and already has advanced plans to build thousands of additional homes.