Threatening to bolt coalition, hawkish faction demands Palestinian road ban

2 MKs of Tekumah, a group within the Jewish Home party, along with settler leaders, urge PM to reinstate West Bank roadblocks, legalize settlements in response to terror attacks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 28, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 28, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

A far-right faction of two Knesset lawmakers on Thursday threatened to quit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and called a meeting to decide on its demands for steps against Palestinians, following a wave of deadly terror attacks in the West Bank.

The threat, if carried through, could bring down the fragile ruling coalition of just 61 of the 120 Knesset members.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed and a civilian and another serviceman were severely injured in a drive-by shooting attack in the central West Bank earlier Thursday, close to where a similar terror attack occurred earlier in the week.

“Following the severe terror attacks, we decided to… reexamine our continued membership in the government and coalition,” Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, who leads the hardline Tekumah faction within the religious right-wing Jewish Home coalition party, wrote on Twitter.

The meeting, called to take place Thursday evening, could see Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich leave the coalition, which currently has a minimal 61-59 majority in the Knesset — a move that would topple the government.

Reports in Hebrew-language media said the faction intends to issue an ultimatum to Netanyahu, conditioning their coalition membership on the closing of Route 60 — the main north-south West Bank artery — to Palestinian vehicles to prevent further drive-by shootings.

Israeli soldiers, medical officials and police inspect the scene of a terrorist shooting attack near Givat Assaf, in the central West Bank, on December 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Thursday’s shooting attack occurred on Route 60 near the Givat Assaf outpost, some two kilometers (1.25 miles) from Ofra, where on Sunday a number of terrorists driving in a white car opened fire at a group of people standing at the settlement’s bus stop, hitting seven of them, including a seven-months pregnant woman who was critically injured and whose baby later died as a result of the attack.

“I have asked the prime minister to order immediate action including reinstating checkpoints all over Judea and Samaria, the immediate demolition of houses and deportation of terrorists within Judea and Samaria,” Ariel wrote, using the biblical-historical name for the territory.

He also demanded that the security cabinet convene by Sunday.

Smotrich said the government had “no right to exist” if routes in the West Bank aren’t closed to Palestinians, and if steps aren’t taken to legalize settlements.

Jewish Home MK Bezalel Smotrich attends a party conference at Bar Ilan University on September 26, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

He also called on settlers to block Route 60 to Palestinians at 5 p.m. on Thursday.

“If there are terror attacks — there won’t be Arabs on the roads. Our lives come before their welfare,” he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, over 20 far-right activists had been arrested for blocking Route 60 to Palestinian traffic, according to the Honenu legal aid group.

Several settler leaders made similar demands, calling on the government to close down highways to Palestinian traffic, legalize settlements and reintroduce roadblocks in response to the attack.

Illustrative: A road signs signifying on Route 60, pointing ways to Jerusalem and Beersheba, on April 23, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

They also announced a municipal strike. Samaria Council chairman Yossi Dagan told reporters that his municipality in addition to the Binyamin Regional Council and the Beit El Local Council will be ceasing their activities and closing down schools on Sunday in order to protest outside the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.

Dagan said he will also be leading a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s Residence Thursday evening at 7 p.m.

Similar demands were made by some members of the ruling Likud party, with MK Oren Hazan calling on Netanyahu to block roads to Palestinians and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin urging the passage of a law formally legalizing settlements established over the last few decades.

In the south, high school students from the Naveh yeshiva demonstrated next to the Gaza Strip’s main border crossing for goods, Kerem Shalom, blocking a road leading up to the crossing, burning tires and calling on the government to respond to the attacks.

Dozens of high school students from the Naveh yeshiva demonstrate next to Kerem Shalom Gaza goods crossing in response to the terror attack near the Givat Assaf outpost on December 13, 2018. (Courtesy)

Meanwhile, the left-wing NGO Peace Now called on Netanyahu to “exercise judgment” and not give in to the settlers’ demands.

After calling Thursday’s attack “shocking,” Peace Now said that “the calls for revenge and for deepening the Israeli control over the West Bank are a cynical use of the murder and to promote a messianic policy that endangers us all.”

The IDF said it closed off the entrances to the nearby city of Ramallah and set up roadblocks throughout the area in an effort to locate the perpetrators of Thursday’s attack. The army said it was not yet sure how many people were involved in the attack.

Palestinian media also reported that Israeli troops launched raids in the Ramallah suburb of el-Bireh.

Israeli soldiers guard the scene of a shooting attack near Givat Assaf, in the central West Bank, on December 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Additional infantry battalions were sent into the West Bank both to defend roads and settlements and to conduct additional searches and arrests, the army said.

The West Bank has seen a significant increase in the number of attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers in recent weeks, after months of relative calm in the area, raising concerns of a potential renewed outbreak of regular, serious violence in the region.

The military blamed the increase in attacks both on terror group’s ongoing efforts, the “copycat” phenomenon and a number of significant dates coming up this week, notably the anniversary of Hamas’s founding.

On Wednesday night, the Israeli military arrested a number of suspects who were believed to have carried out Sunday night’s shooting attack and shot dead a third, who security officials said tried to attack Israeli troops during an escape attempt. On Thursday, the army said the search for additional perpetrators was ongoing.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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