Military flight over Hebron in occupied West Bank criticised as ‘provocative show of force’
Plans to include an overflight of Hebron in the occupied West Bank in Israel’s annual independence day airshow have been met with angry responses from Palestinians and leftwing Israelis.
The Israel air force said on its website at the weekend that the controversial overflight sought by settler leaders would take place on Thursday. The decision puts an end to uncertainty over the display after an initial announcement was taken down amid criticism from Mossi Raz, a legislator in the leftwing Meretz party, which is part of the ruling coalition, who termed it “a provocative show of force and superiority”.
The decision comes as about 1,000 Hebron settlers, viewed as including some of the most militant Israelis in the West Bank, make plans to expand their heavily guarded enclaves in Hebron, a city of roughly 200,000 Palestinians.
“This is a kind of annexation of Hebron to the Israeli state,” said the Palestinian activist Issa Amro, the head of the Friends of Hebron organisation that opposes Israeli settlement in the flashpoint city. “This is a provocation of our feelings.”
Palestinians will be doing anything but celebrating Israeli independence. They view that as the Nakba (catastrophe) when about 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in the war surrounding Israel’s creation. “Instead of apologising for the Nakba, they continue to show us more signs they want the Palestinians to leave their homes,” Amro said.
Ori Givati, spokesperson for Breaking the Silence, a group of anti-occupation Israeli military veterans, also criticised the planned overflight, saying it would “represent another step in the de facto annexation” of the occupied Palestinian territories. “It is hard to ignore the irony of an Israeli independence flyover over the heads of a people to whom Israel has denied independence for 55 years,” Givati said.
But as has often been the case with the hard-right prime minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition, the views of the left were disregarded in favour of those of the settlers and their allies.
The planes are slated to fly over the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site where Jewish tradition holds that biblical patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. The same site is holy to Muslims as the Ibrahimi mosque.
Yigal Dilmoni, the CEO of the Yesha Council, the umbrella group for settlers in the West Bank, hailed the decision. “There is symbolism that the flight of the air force on independence day, which symbolises the return of the nation of Israel to the land of Israel, passes over Hebron and the Cave of the Patriarchs. This is a symbolic matter of values and ideals.”
Eliyahu Liebman, the mayor for Jewish settlers in Hebron and neighbouring Kiryat Arba, said a wrong was being righted. “This says that we are gaining equality and being treated like any other citizen of the state of Israel in all matters including the flyover which will go over our houses and not just certain cities,” he said
Liebman added that every year, local residents and officials had impressed upon authorities that being included in the overflight was “very, very, very important” to them and that this year they finally got a positive response.
The overflight route will also include the south Hebron hills, where settlers are known for their violence towards Palestinians and Israeli solidarity activists. Israeli army plans call for the eviction of about 4,000 Palestinians from 30 farming hamlets in the vicinity to make way for a training area. The matter is awaiting a verdict by Israel’s supreme court.
The Hebron settlers count anti-Arab extremists in their ranks, including the far-right opposition MP Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has advocated for the expulsion of Arab citizens of Israel deemed to be disloyal to the state. But in recent years there has been a process of mainstreaming the Hebron settlers. President Isaac Herzog visited the Cave of the Patriarchs in November, declaring that recognition of Jewish ties to the site “must be beyond all controversy”.