Netanyahu promises settlers West Bank annexation to win votes
Less than a couple of weeks before the general Israeli election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu paid a rare visit to the occupied West Bank city of Hebron for the first time in 20 years.
The occupied city, which houses the illegal core ultra-nationalist Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, is home to about 800 illegal extreme Jewish settlers who live among a quarter million Palestinians.
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The stated goal of Bibi's visit, which Palestinians considered provocative, was to attend a ceremony marking 90 years since the 1929 "massacres of Jews" in the city and elsewhere.
Palestinians however, call it the events of "Al-Buraq" or the "popular uprising" in which Jews and Arabs clashed over the ownership of the Al-Buraq Wall, or what Israelis call the "Wailing Wall". This is part of an ancient 50 metre long wall that surrounds the al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem.
The events took place in 1929 under the British rule and led to the killing of 116 Arabs and 133 Jews across historic Palestine at the time including 67 in Hebron.
As Netanyahu made his way to the city earlier this month, it was under total lockdown, with heavy presence of Israeli forces blocking the roads in the face of local Palestinians.
In a sign of protest, Palestinians residents closed their shops while a number of youngsters clashed with Israeli occupation forces.
As he was given a hero's welcome, his words at the ceremony made references to biblical beliefs.
"The Israeli government is not here to disinherit anyone, but no one will disinherit us. We came to Hebron to express our victory. We are not strangers to Hebron and we will stay here forever. The people of Israel are deeply entrenched in Hebron. We have built [the settlement of] Kiryat Arba, we returned to Hebron," the premier said.
For Palestinians who have been suffering endlessly due to the constant attacks of the settlers, such provocative visits to their city comes as an attempt to win the votes of the fanatic extreme Israeli settlers who enjoy the full protection of the Israeli army.
Almost all Palestinian political and resistance factions reacted angrily, warning of the repercussions of such move.
The Palestinian Authority leadership whose peace talks with Israel broke down in 2014 and who have spurned US President Donald Trump's bids to renew them, called Netanyahu's visit to Hebron a dangerous escalation and an attempt to taunt Muslims in the region.
"We warn against the dangerous repercussions of Netanyahu's step, which is being carried out in order to win the votes of [Israel's] extreme right wing. The international community ought to act to prevent such aggression," President Mahmoud Abbas' spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh said.
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The ultra-orthodox and the far-right parties
Appeasing the settlers' movements and religious factions and groups is an asset to Netanyahu. But he must show them that he can and is willing to fulfil his promise to apply Israeli sovereignty to the West Bank and annex it.
Leading Israeli officials such as Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Culture Minister Miri Regev of the Likud party called on him to take an immediate decision to annex Hebron.
A few days prior to this visit, Netanyahu made a pledge on September 1, at the start of the school year during a visit to the occupied West Bank settlement of Elkana to apply Israeli sovereignty on the entire West Bank.
"There is no better place to start bringing that pledge into fruition than in Hebron. If there's no Hebron there's no Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv's right to exist is rooted in Hebron, where Abraham and Sarah are buried," Regev said at Bibi's presence. She was referring to the biblical figures believed to be buried in the city's Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Dr Hanan Ashrawi, Member of the PLO Executive Committee tweeted: "These – the repeated pledges to annex the West Bank – are not just electioneering slogans pandering to the extreme racist right wing electorate; they are statements of intent to steal all of historical Palestine with US collusion".
For their part, Palestinian resistance groups condemned the visit and warned of its repercussions and called on the international community to bear legal and moral responsibility towards the suffering of Palestinians in Hebron.
"Netanyahu's visit to the city of Hebron and his intention to storm the Tomb of the Patriarchs; is a flagrant challenge to the feelings of Islamic nations. Netanyahu is trying to restore his image. The reason why he dared to storm the Muslim holy sites is due to the efforts of regional regimes to normalise ties with the Israeli entity," Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said.
The left wing factions such as PFLP and DFLP also described the visit a dangerous move that could spark a religious conflict and that it comes as an implantation to the proposed US plan, known as "Deal of the Century".
The frequent supportive announcements of Netanyahu and his government in favour of settlers and settlements is not only aimed at gaining more voters, but also to please the World Zionist Organization and Jewish groups worldwide as well as AIPAC. It is also an attempt to get their financial and moral support, not to mention seeking a cover up for his corruption allegations and escape accountability.
Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank and is regarded as the second holiest city in Judaism for hosting the tomb of Abraham and his wife Sarah, as well as the two other patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish faith.
The city's main commercial Al-Jamalah market has been closed down by an Israeli order since 1994. It used to be a flourishing Souq and a thriving economy to locals.
The closure came into effect following a brutal shooting massacre of 29 Palestinian worshipers at the hands of an extremist American Israeli Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein in 1994, using an assault rifle at the dawn prayer in the city's grand Ibrahimi mosque before being beaten to death by survivors.
Over the past years, a plan to establish a new settlement on the ruins of the defunct Souq has been in discussion among settler groups with the successive Israeli governments led by Netanyahu, in an attempt to confiscate the owned Palestinians' properties and expand nearby settlements.
Netanyahu said on a number of occasions that he will not allow the dismantlement of any settlement in the West Bank as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state on his watch.
The Palestinian official response was instigating a diplomatic war and condemnations, while Israel continued its efforts to Judaize the West Bank and Jerusalem through imposing more harsh measures and changing the demography of the areas that it has been controlling since 1967.
During the last election in April, just 7.5 percent of Hebron settlers voted Likud, with most backing more rightist parties, according to a census data show.
Despite Likud's overall gains, Netanyahu failed to form his fifth coalition government, triggering a repeat election set for September 17.
Through such rare visits while aligning shoulder to shoulder to settler leaders and communities, Netanyahu is hopeful that their votes will be key in his efforts to build a right-wing coalition.
Yousef Alhelou is a Palestinian journalist and political analyst from Gaza, based in London. He is a United Nations fellow and alumni, and served as a Reuters journalist fellow at the University of Oxford.
Follow him on Twitter: @YousefAlhelou