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Israel on brink of internal conflict 'that will consume us all', president warns

Isaac Herzog - AP
Isaac Herzog - AP

Israel's president has warned that the country is on the brink of an "internal struggle" that could "consume us all" over the government's controversial legal reforms.

In an unusual intervention, Isaac Herzog, whose role is usually largely ceremonial, said he feared that bitter division over plans to drastically reform the Israeli legal system could pull the state apart if they were carried out recklessly.

Separately, the killing of three Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers this month and plans by the Israeli government to annex swathes of the West Bank have also stoked fears of a major escalation in the Holy Land.

"I see the sides prepared and ready all along the front for an all-out confrontation over the character of the state of Israel, and I am anxious we are on the brink of an internal struggle that could consume us all,” Mr Herzog said in a speech this week.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is seeking reforms that in the eyes of critics would weaken the supreme court and increase his coalition's control over judicial appointments. In January, he was sworn in as the leader of the most Right-wing government in Israeli history, following elections in November.

Major protests over reforms

The proposed legal reforms have prompted large-scale protests in Tel Aviv and similar demonstrations in Jerusalem, which are somewhat reminiscent of the anti-Netanyahu protests of 2020 and 2021.

It is not the first time that Mr Herzog has publicly expressed reservations about the new government and its key figures. In November, he was caught by a live microphone warning that the "entire world" was "anxious" about extreme-Right politicians propping up Mr Netanyahu's coalition.

While the demonstrations in Israel are almost entirely focused on legal reform and Mr Netanyahu, tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have also sharply risen following the swearing-in of Mr Netanyahu's government, which includes the anti-Arab Right-wing extremist Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Mr Ben-Gvir, who has convictions for inciting racism and supporting terrorism, has been handed the role of police and security minister in the new government and has called for a major expansion of Israeli settlements.

Settlement plan a form of 'mini-annexation'

A report this week in a Right-wing Israeli newspaper said that the Israeli government is planning to shift authority over parts of the West Bank from the defence ministry to the finance ministry, in a move that would amount to annexation.

The finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, is a far-Right, pro-settlement politician who has described himself as a "fascist homophobe" and who once compared human rights groups to swarms of insects.

The settlements plan, which was characterised as a form of "mini-annexation", is part of wider efforts to impose Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, which is claimed by the Palestinians as their own land. Israel's settlements in the West Bank are considered by many countries, including Britain, as illegal under international law, though this is disputed by Israel.

Criticism over West Bank killings

Israel is also facing renewed criticism over a series of killings of Palestinians in the West Bank, including three children, and a father who was mistakenly identified as a terrorist attacker.

This week, the Israeli military police said it was investigating the case of Ahmad Kahla, who was pepper sprayed and then killed by the Israeli military, which initially said he was a terrorist.

Kan, an Israeli broadcaster, said a military review had found that Mr Kahla was not planning an attack and had been shot after a scuffle with troops in which he tried to grab a soldiers' weapon.

The three youngsters, aged between 15 and 17, were killed in separate incidents where Israeli forces had clashed with Palestinian militant groups or Palestinians throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. Israel says it is investigating their deaths.

On Wednesday, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man after he ran at a soldier with a knife near the settlement of Kedumim. Palestinian militants carried out a string of terror attacks on Israeli civilians in 2022 both inside Israel and in the West Bank.

In a sign that Mr Netanyahu is trying to avert an escalation in the Holy Land, however, he reassured the King of Jordan in a meeting on Tuesday that he would maintain the status quo on Jerusalem's holy sites.

The meeting was held after Mr Ben-Gvir paid a hugely controversial visit to the al-Aqsa mosque compound in early January, which Palestinians and the wider Arab world condemned as a reckless provocation.