Dozens of Israeli peace activists have toured the occupied West Bank’s largest city in a show of solidarity with Palestinians, amid chants of “shame” from ultra-nationalist hecklers.
The encounter in the centre of Hebron signalled the widening rift among Israelis over the nature of their society and Israel’s open-ended military rule over the Palestinians, now in its 56th year.
After parliamentary elections last month, the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history is poised to be installed in coming days or weeks, with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returning to power.
In coalition agreements, Mr Netanyahu has already handed key authorities in the West Bank to ultra-nationalist faction leaders, including former fringe figure Itamar Ben-Gvir, known for his anti-Arab rhetoric.
The new roles include oversight of Israeli settlement construction and the paramilitary border police, often deployed in Palestinian population centres.
At the same time, peace activists and pro-Palestinian rights groups have come under attack in recent years from right-wing politicians branding them traitors.
The immediate trigger for Friday’s tour was an incident in volatile Hebron that was caught on video last week.
The video shows a soldier pushing a man to the ground and punching him in the face after a tense stand-off with a small group of peace activists.
Another soldier is heard telling the activists: “Ben-Gvir is going to sort things out in this place. That’s it, you guys have lost.”
The soldier uttering the taunts was initially sentenced to 10 days in military jail, but the army then reduced the sentence to six days.
As incoming national security minister, Mr Ben-Gvir will have control over the border police whose troops are often deployed alongside regular soldiers in the West Bank.
As about 200 peace activists arrived in the centre of Hebron on Friday, they were greeted by a group of protesters holding a banner reading: “The people of Israel demand: expel the anarchist from Hebron.”
One man using a loudspeaker shouted: “Shame, shame,” as the visitors listened to tour guides in a car park, separated from the right-wing protesters by security forces.
Friday’s visit was part of the regular offerings of anti-occupation groups, but turnout was larger than usual because of the election results and last week’s incident in Hebron, said Ori Givati, a spokesman for Breaking the Silence, one of the groups organising the trip.
He said activists were worried — but also determined to continue their work, including tours to West Bank hot spots like Hebron, where dozens of heavily guarded settlers live in a city of tens of thousands of Palestinians.
Mr Givati said: “There is definitely fear for the safety, first and foremost for Palestinians under this occupation that are now going to be under a government that promotes hate and racism more than ever toward them, and toward our organization and other organisations and activists that are now in a reality where their activity here is delegitimised, also more than ever.”
Palestinians were largely out of sight as the Israeli groups faced off.
Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist in Hebron, said he believes the hard-line ideology of Mr Ben-Gvir and others will spread further in Israeli society.
“The settlers here are celebrating the election of their fascist representatives in the government,” he said. “What happens in Hebron will end in Tel Aviv.”
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