Netanyahu's first coalition challenge is likely Khan al-Ahmar

The state has a deadline of February 1 to give the High Court of Justice a detailed plan to demolish Khan al Ahmar.

 Girls squat in the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank October 22, 2018. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
Girls squat in the Palestinian Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank October 22, 2018.

The long-promised demolition of the illegal Bedouin hamlet of Khan Al Ahmar in the West Bank is likely to be one of the first domestic leadership tests for designated prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On February 1, the state must give its response to the High Court of Justice detailing its plans to demolish the herding village.

That places the issue top on the incoming government's policy agenda and gives Israel's western allies — such as the US and Europe — important information about who is holding the reigns of power in the new government, Netanyahu or his coalition partners.

Those Western allies have in the past let Israel know that destroying the homes of 180 members of the Abu Dahuk clan of the Jahalin tribe that live in Khan al-Ahmar is a redline that the Jewish state should not cross.

Those homes could now be a litmus test of how the new government’s policy will play out in the West Bank.

Benjamin Netanyahu promises on December 13, 2022 that Israel will not become a halachic state. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Benjamin Netanyahu promises on December 13, 2022 that Israel will not become a halachic state. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

If Khan al-Ahmar is razed, Western allies will fear that Netanyahu would likely allow other changes in the West Bank demanded by parliamentarians in his Likud party and his coalition partners such as the Religious Zionist Party (RZP) and Otzma Yehudit.

These include increased demolition of illegal Palestinian and Bedouin construction such as Khan al-Ahmar, as well as unfettered settlement building and outpost authorization. 

Then there is the push to end IDF control over Israeli civilian life in Area C of the West Bank, a region that is outside of Israel's sovereign borders. Such a step is seen as a form of de facto annexation.

The future of Khan al-Ahmar, a small cluster of huts and tents perched on top of Route 1 just below the Kfar Adumim settlement has been overshadowed in the media by the possibility of changes to the Law of Return, LGBTQ rights and the judiciary in the new coalition that is forming.

But that will shift in January, should Netanyahu meet the deadline to form a new government this month.

How will the new government affect the issue?

To get the government off the ground, Netanyahu is likely to make sweeping promises, which will then be actualized in agonizingly slow steps so that he can assure opponents that the status quo in many arenas, including the West Bank, will remain the same.

He has already made statements about maintaining the status quo, to quell the fears over his coalition partners' demands.

Otzma Yehudit and the RZP and will in turn want to assure their voters that they are in power to execute important policy objectives, which for them will include the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar.

The RZP and its leader, incoming finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, is well poised to destroy the village. Once, all he could do was stand on a nearby hilltop and call for its demise.

Now he is expected to also be a minister within the Defense Ministry. In that post, he will be given control over civilian life in Area C, which is under both Israeli military and civilian control.

This includes control of the IDF’s Civil Administration, which has the power to demolish illegal construction in Area C. The RZP also has control of writing responses to petitions to the High Court of Justice on matters relating to the West Bank, such as those regarding Khan al-Ahmar.

Smotrich will have the power both to order the state to provide the court with a timetable to demolish the Civil Administration and to order it to carry out that policy.

There is only one catch – he must also receive Netanyahu’s approval for such moves.

The High Court of Justice already ruled in 2018 that the IDF could raze Khan al-Ahmar and Netanyahu promised to do so.  Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman made plans to move against the hamlet, but Netanyahu stopped him in his tracks after receiving a warning against such a move from the former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

It was his refusal to act that prompted the right-wing NGO Regavim in 2019 to file a petition to the High Court, asking that it force the state to raze Khan al-Ahamar. 

Netanyahu asked for delays on the matter and left office in 2021 with Khan al-Ahmar still standing. 

When he won the election at the start of November it was expected that he would quickly form a government; instead, he and his coalition partners have played a protracted game of political chicken, holding onto their ideological stances rather than compromising.

Netanyahu must form a government this month. Should he succeed, the coalition would want a honeymoon period to show that it can work cooperatively.

Khan al-Ahmar will force it to almost immediately return to a combative position, with Netanyahu forced to make a choice between domestic stability or assuaging his Western allies.