GAZA/WEST BANK (Reuters) – The prospect of Benjamin Netanyahu returning to power at the head of one of the most right-wing coalitions in Israeli history has prompted concern among Palestinians who said they feared it was a prelude to further escalation of conflict with Israel.
Netanyahu’s comeback in Tuesday’s election is set against the backdrop of the deadliest spell of violence in years between Israel and the Palestinians, whose hopes of statehood appear as distant as ever with Middle East peacemaking in the doldrums.
More than 100 Palestinians from the Israeli-occupied West Bank have been killed by Israeli forces this year while a string of fatal street attacks by Palestinians has killed 20 people in Israel and Israeli settlements.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank and Gaza Strip said the ultra-nationalist complexion of Netanyahu’s likely alliance, including the firebrand Itamar Ben-Gvir, who once advocated expelling Palestinians, prompted concern over further tension.
“No doubt the result of such a coalition will increase the hostile attitude towards the Palestinian people and make occupation measures more extreme,” Bassam Salhe, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Reuters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which has fought several wars with Israel over the last decade, predicted the results meant more potential violence.
“It is clear that the Israelis are leaning towards more extremism, which also means aggression against our people would increase,” Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem told Reuters.
“Netanyahu-led governments that launched several wars against our Palestinian people, and the presence of the most extreme figures in a coalition means that we are going to face more of the Zionist terrorism,” Qassem told Reuters.
A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited autonomy over Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank, declined to comment on the preliminary election results, saying they would await the final outcome.
While negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel have been at a standstill, the sides have had contacts this year, with Abbas meeting Defence Minister Benny Gantz to calm tensions and coordinate security measures.
In September, Abbas welcomed Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s call for a two-state solution as a “positive development”. Netanyahu, by contrast, has long opposed a Palestinian state.
Reham Owda, a Palestinian political analyst in Gaza, said the peace process and the Palestinian Authority, in particular, may be the prime loser of a Netanyahu comeback, given his “personal enmity with … Abbas and his opposition to the two-state solution”.
“With Netanyahu, the slogan will be, no peace, no two-state solution, more settlement and the focus will be on Iran,” she told Reuters. “His biggest challenge will be how to regain calm in the West Bank, face Palestinian escalating resistance, and protect settlements and settlers.”
In the latest West Bank violence, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man on Wednesday after a suspected car-ramming attack at a checkpoint that left a soldier severely injured, Palestinian and Israeli officials said.
Violence also escalated in August in Gaza. At least 49 people including 17 children were killed in 56 hours of fighting that started with what Israel described as preemptive air strikes against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which fired hundreds of missiles into Israel during the flare-up.
“The Palestinian people will get nothing from this government except war, destruction, killing, bloodshed, house demolition, razing of land and the building of more settlements at the expense of the Palestinian people,” said Youssef Khattab, a TV director in Gaza.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Nick Macfie)