Naftali Bennet is facing his first major test as Israel’s prime minister within hours of taking office as a nationalist march is scheduled to run through Jerusalem on Tuesday, risking a return to widespread violence.
The right-winger who led the ousting of Benjamin Netanyahu has been warned that Hamas will use the march as a pretext for firing rockets at Israel.
The march had been due to take place on "Jerusalem Day," a holiday of nationalist parades in Israel, on May 10, but was postponed as the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza erupted.
It was eventually rescheduled by the Netanyahu government for Tuesday – in a move that left the issue in the hands of Mr Bennett.
Palestinians regard the march, which is organised by pro-settlement groups, as a deliberate provocation, while Israel protests that it simply commemorates the capture of Jerusalem in 1967.
Hamas in Gaza is watching preparations for the march closely and has warned it will launch an attack on Israel if it goes ahead.
The Islamist group reportedly renewed those threats on Monday, warning that if the march takes place it will elicit a response “no different from that of last month,” referring to when Hamas fired a rocket at Jerusalem.
File image of the Iron Dome Missile defence system intercepting a Hamas rocket during the May 2021 Gaza conflict
Credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen
On Monday Israel’s new security minister, Omer Bar-Lev, said that the government had granted permission for the march to proceed and was seeking police advice on avoiding clashes.
“In a democracy it is allowed and important to demonstrate within the confines of the law,” Mr Barlev said. “We will hold a police assessment about the events and we will operate according to the recommendations of the police."
The march is due to run through Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem’s Old City but Israeli police have insisted that it does not pass through Damascus Gate, a flashpoint for violence over the past month.
The Israeli military has reportedly stepped up its presence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank in anticipation of clashes on Tuesday.
“At the same time, air defense readiness will be upped given Hamas’s threats to respond to the Jerusalem march,” an Israeli security source told the Israeli news website Walla.
Security analysts say that Hamas may resort to sending incendiary balloons over the border into Israel instead of launching rockets, as the latter would likely provoke a military response from Israel.
On Monday, Mr Bennett held a brief handover ceremony with Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem which lasted for just 30 minutes.
Mr Netanyahu has vowed he will return to power
It came after Mr Netanyahu furiously denounced the new government as “dangerous” as he vowed to topple the coalition in his new role as opposition leader.
Mr Netanyahu’s former coalition partner, the ultra-orthodox party United Torah Judaism, has also said it is praying for the imminent collapse of the government.
“All the curses that appear in the Torah are valid for the government,” said the party’s former housing minister, Yaakov Litzman.
But the new government has received a warm welcome from President Joe Biden, who congratulated Mr Bennett in a phone call just hours after he was voted in as prime minister. “President Biden highlighted his decades of steadfast support for the US-Israel relationship and his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security,” a US government spokesman said.
“The leaders agreed that they and their teams would consult closely on all matters related to regional security, including Iran.”
Yair Lapid, the centrist leader who will take over from Mr Bennett as prime minister in two years, has said he wants to rebuild ties with Mr Biden’s Democrat party, which suffered under Mr Netanyahu’s rule.
“The management of the relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States was careless and dangerous,” he said. “We need to change the way we work with them."