JERUSALEM — Thousands of Israelis led by at least seven cabinet ministers marched toward an evacuated West Bank settlement on Monday, in a defiant sign that Israel’s most right-wing government in history is determined to speed up settlement construction on occupied lands. despite international opposition.

The massive demonstration also threatened to further escalate tensions that have been heightened by days of unrest in the region over a disputed holy site in Jerusalem. In fresh violence, Israeli troops killed a 15-year-old Palestinian boy during an arrest raid in the occupied West Bank, while a 48-year-old Israeli woman died from injuries sustained in an attack last week that killed two of his daughters.

Monday’s march took place in the northern West Bank, the scene of repeated acts of violence in recent months. Thousands of Israeli army and police forces were reportedly deployed to secure the march, adding to the already flammable atmosphere that has accompanied the overlap of major Jewish and Muslim holidays. Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks over the Jerusalem shrine.

Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks in Eviatar, in the occupied West Bank, on Monday.Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP – Getty Images

The march to Eviatar, an unauthorized outpost settlement in the northern West Bank that was evacuated by the previous Israeli government in 2021, was led by hardline ultranationalist Jewish settlers.

Daniella Weiss, another settler leader, told Kan public radio that the ministers’ participation in the march could be “therapy for the government to free itself from US and European dictates” on the settlement. in the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the most religious and ultranationalist government in Israel’s history.

Several members of his cabinet, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, both West Bank settlers, and at least 20 Knesset members took part in the march.

Speaking at the march, Ben-Gvir said that «we are here to say that the Israeli nation is strong» and that «we are here and we will stay here.»

Monday’s march appeared to be aimed in part at bolstering support for hardline Israelis like Ben-Gvir.

Recent polls have shown a sharp drop in support for the new hardline government after months of violence, including growing dissatisfaction among people who voted for him.

A poll on Channel 13 TV found that 60% of respondents said they do not trust the government to deal with the current wave of violence, compared to 27% who do. The poll questioned 699 people and had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.

Israel's far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in Eviatar in the occupied West Bank on April 10, 2023.
Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich in Eviatar in the occupied West Bank on April 10, 2023.Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP – Getty Images

Visits to Eviatar have been officially banned by the military since its evacuation, but that ban has been loosely enforced in recent months. Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said the army approved Monday’s march, saying it would be «highly monitored and highly protected.»

Dozens of families, almost all of them Orthodox Jews, many of them pushing baby carriages, took part in the march. At the outpost, inflatable slides were set up for children to jump and play.

The march passed without major violence, although Israeli troops fired tear gas at Palestinians in the nearby town of Beita, who threw stones at the soldiers to protest the march. The Palestinian Red Crescent medical service said two people, including a journalist, were shot by Israeli rubber bullets, while 115 people suffered from tear gas inhalation. A video that circulated on social media showed a tear gas canister falling next to a Palestinian journalist as he delivered a television report.

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have soared following last week’s police raid on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The hilltop compound where the mosque stands is the emotional ground zero of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To Jews, it is known as the Temple Mount, the holiest site of their faith and the place where two temples stood in ancient times. To Muslims, it is known as the Noble Sanctuary, home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.

Dozens of Jewish visitors entered the site on Monday escorted by Israeli police for the second day in a row. These tours by religious and nationalist Jews have increased in size and frequency in recent years, raising fears among Palestinians that Israel could partition the site. Israel insists it has no intention of changing a longstanding agreement that allows Jewish visits, but not worship, at the Muslim-run shrine.

Last week, Palestinians barricaded themselves inside Al-Aqsa with rocks and firecrackers, demanding the right to pray there overnight, something Israel has only allowed in the past for the last 10 days of Ramadan. The police forcibly removed them, detaining hundreds and injuring dozens of others.

Palestinians stand inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Israeli security forces look on in Jerusalem on April 9, 2023.
Palestinians stand inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque as Israeli security forces look on in Jerusalem on April 9.Ahmad Gharabli / AFP – Getty Images

The violence was followed by the firing of rockets by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip, southern Lebanon and Syria beginning Wednesday, and Israeli airstrikes against those areas.

Recent days have also seen Palestinian attacks that killed two British-Israeli sisters and an Italian tourist. On Monday, Israel’s Hadassah hospital announced the death of Lucy Dee, the mother of the two sisters. Lucy Dee, who was traveling with her daughters, had been hospitalized in critical condition since Friday’s shooting in the West Bank.

The Israeli army said its troops were operating in the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp, next to Jericho, in the West Bank. The Palestinian Health Ministry said 15-year-old Mohammed Balhan was killed by army gunfire.

The army said it entered the camp to arrest a wanted Palestinian suspect. He said residents opened fire and threw explosives at the troops, who responded with live fire and «hits were identified.» He said the wanted suspect was arrested and there were no Israeli casualties.

Israeli settlers at the Eviatar outpost in the occupied West Bank on April 10, 2023.
Israeli settlers at the Eviatar outpost in the occupied West Bank on April 10, 2023.Ariel Schalit/AP

Palestinian attacks have killed at least 20 people, including a soldier, since the beginning of the year. At least 92 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire so far this year, at least half of them affiliated with militant groups, according to a tally by The Associated Press.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Middle East war. It has built dozens of settlements that are now home to more than 700,000 Jewish settlers.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank are considered by most of the international community to be illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem for a future independent state.

The Netanyahu government has made settlement expansion a top priority and already has advanced plans to build thousands of additional homes.