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What's behind the escalating strikes, protests and violence in Israel?

Netanyahu fires Israel's defense minister
Protests in Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fires defense minister 02:53

Criticism of Israel's new far-right, ultra-religious coalition government continues to mount amid a backlash to its judiciary reform plans and spiraling violence between Israeli security forces and Palestinians. Below is the latest on what's happening, and why.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netayahu announced a delay Monday in implementing controversial reforms to the nation's judiciary. Thousands of Israeli workers had gone on strike Monday after a weekend of massive protests over the plans — the latest demonstrations against the proposed changes. 

Critics say the changes being pushed by Netanyahu's far-right coalition government would allow the executive branch to reverse decisions made by Israel's Supreme Court and undermine the country's system of democratic checks and balances.  

Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to demonstrate against the changes being sought by Netanyahu's government, and the protests ramped up dramatically over the weekend when the premier fired his defense chief for calling for a halt to the planned judicial reforms.

Israel Politics
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan outside the parliament in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. Ariel Schalit/AP

The strike action, called by Israel's biggest umbrella labor union group, saw workers in sectors from transport to diplomacy walk off the job, heaping pressure on Netanyahu. 

Israeli reservist Air Force pilots joined the protests against the proposed reforms earlier this month. In a letter sent by dozens of reserve pilots to their chief of staff, which was published by Israeli media on Sunday, the reservists said they would not attend an upcoming scheduled training. Military reservists are often called to take part in limited periods of training each year in Israel, where military service is compulsory.

"We will continue to serve the Jewish and democratic State of Israel at all times and across borders... [but] we have decided to take a one day break to talk about the disturbing processes the country is going through," they said in their letter.

"Explosive potential"

Despite meetings between Israeli and Palestinian officials in Jordan to try to maintain the increasingly fragile peace, violence and anger may be on the brink of boiling over. Tension often increases in the heart of the Middle East as Jews mark Passover and Muslims observe the holy month of Ramadan.

What's behind the violence and protests in Israel? 06:02

Since the start of the year, a series of Israeli army raids have killed and injured scores of Palestinians in the West Bank. Seven Israelis were killed, meanwhile, in an attack outside a synagogue in east Jerusalem that was the deadliest attack of its kind in years.

After two young Israeli men from a nearby settlement were killed in the West Bank city of Hawara, Israeli settlers rampaged through the area, torching homes and cars in what has been described as a "pogrom."

Netanyahu recently began his sixth term as Israel's prime minister — a return to power made possible by the veteran politician forging a coalition with members of extremist, far-right and ultra-religious political parties that had long existed on the fringes of Israeli politics.

After returning to office, Netanyahu appointed some of these controversial figures to leadership roles within his government, including finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, a self-avowed "proud homophobe" who was once arrested on suspicion of organizing an attempted terror attack.

Israeli Minister of Finance and leader of the Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. Getty Images

After the rampage in Hawara, Smotrich called for the Israeli government to "wipe out" the Palestinian village. His remarks brought a stark rebuke from U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price, who called them "irresponsible, disgusting and repugnant."

Smotrich later backtracked on his remarks, and Netanyahu over the weekend said he "wanted to thank Minister Bezalel Smootrich (sic) for making clear that his choice of words regarding the vigilante attacks on Harrawa following the murder of the Yaniv brothers was inappropriate and that he is strongly opposed to intentionally harming innocent civilians."

Another controversial government minister is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a radical ultra-nationalist who has chanted "death to Arabs" in the past and was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization. As the new Minister for National Security, Ben-Gvir is now in charge of Israel's police.

Thousands of Israelis protest against new government's far-right policies 02:42

Mounir Marjieh, an advocate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, told CBS News that Palestinians living in the occupied territories expected more violence at the hands of Israeli police and military forces, and a further curtailing of rights under the new extremist coalition.

"Palestinians are coping with a system that is built on the premise of Jewish domination, hegemony and superiority," Marjeih said. "It's a daily struggle to live here, to stay here." 

In February, Israel's parliament passed legislation that allows the government to strip Palestinians with Israeli citizenship or residency of those rights and deport them to the West Bank or Gaza if they're convicted of nationalistic attacks and they receive money from the Palestinian Authority. Critics call the legislation racist and say it violates international law.  

One of Ben-Gvir's first acts in his new role was to visit the highly sensitive site in Jerusalem that Jews call the Temple Mount and Muslims call Haram al-Sharif, the al-Aqsa Mosque compound. His visit was seen by many inside and outside Israel as a challenge to the status quo arrangement under which the site has long been managed to maintain peace. The visit drew a warning from the U.S. State Department against "any unilateral actions that undercut the historic status quo." 

Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir
Israel's new far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, in the foreground, is seen visiting the holy site in Jerusalem known as Al-Aqsa Mosque by Muslims and Temple Mount by Jews, January 3, 2023. Reuters

"What Ben-Gvir has done is very risky in so many ways," Marjeih said. "We are speaking about one of the most volatile geographic locations in Jerusalem… There is a very clear arrangement that governs that place. Breaching that arrangement has an explosive potential."

Ben-Gvir has already banned the Palestinian flag from being flown in public spaces. He's seeking to amend gun laws to make it easier for Israelis to procure firearms, and has pledged to accelerate settlement building in the occupied West Bank. New settlement construction undermines any eventual two-state solution that would see an independent Palestinian nation created alongside Israel. He has also vowed to loosen the rules of engagement for police and soldiers, and pledged tougher treatment of Palestinian prisoners.

"I think there is enough reasons after the appointment of that Israeli politician to feel constant, to feel constant fear," said Marjeih.

Boaz Bismuth, a member of Israel's Knesset, or parliament, from Netanyahu's Likud party, told CBS News that Ben-Gvir had "made mistakes in the past … but he told me, 'I made mistakes. I have changed,' and I believe him." 

Bismuth said Ben-Gvir "detests terrorists … but doesn't detest or hate Arabs."

Boaz Bismuth, a member of Israel's Knesset, or parliament, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, speaks with CBS News in Jerusalem, in January 2023.  CBS News

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited the region in January and met Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He voiced America's continued support for a two-state solution, but said ending the conflict was "fundamentally up to them. They have to work together to find a path forward that both defuses the current cycle of violence and, I hope, also leads to positive steps to build back some confidence."

When asked if he supported a two-state solution, Bismuth said, "No."

"My message to America is, thank God … that we are friends," he said. "We share the same values. Yet we can also disagree."

"A dramatic change"

Some Americans who have made their lives in Israel expressed deep concern over the new government and the direction in which the country is headed. Tens of thousands of Israelis have gathered on the streets of Tel Aviv for weeks to protest the proposed judicial reforms, as well as proposed changes to anti-discrimination legislation that could see the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people, liberal Jews and other minority groups curtailed, in some cases for religious reasons.

"Americans have to know that this is not just a continuation of other right-wing governments. This is a dramatic change," Moshe Chertoff, who grew up in California and moved to Israel in the 1970s to live on a socialist kibbutz, told CBS News. "I don't understand what kind of extreme Judaism that is. It's definitely not the Judaism that I knew or that I'd say 75% of American Jews know."

Moshe Chertoff, a California native who moved to Israel in the 1970's to live on a socialist kibbutz, is seen at home in late January 2023.  CBS News

Some prominent Jewish Americans in the U.S. also have concerns about the changes Israel's new hardline government may usher in. Last month, nearly 170 prominent American Jewish leaders published an open letter calling for "a critical and necessary debate about Israeli policies."

"Our criticisms emanate from a love for Israel and a steadfast support for its security and wellbeing," the letter said. "Some will try to dismiss their validity by labeling them antisemitic. We want to be clear that, whether or not one agrees with a particular criticism, such critiques of Israeli policy are not antisemitic. Indeed, they reflect a real concern that the new government's direction mirrors anti-democratic trends that we see arising elsewhere — in other nations and here in the U.S., rather than reinforcing the shared democratic values that are foundational to the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the former leader of the Anti-Defamation League, told CBS News that if the new Israeli government undermines civil rights or democracy in Israel, it could leave many American Jews with some serious questions.

Abraham Foxman
Abraham Foxman at the 2014 annual meeting of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles. Michael Kovac/WireImage/Getty

"The escalation in violence makes it more urgent for the Netanyahu government to make compromises in some of the proposed legislation to maintain the support of allied democracies and the diaspora Jewish communities," Foxman said. "The Jewish community, especially in the United States, is a liberal community. Judaism has liberal values. If the values in the state of Israel change vis-à-vis relationships with the LGBT community, the non-Orthodox, Arabs, etc., it will impact the relationship. ... I want this government to know that if it tampers with democracy, if it tampers with the basic relationship between Israel and the Jewish people, it will have consequences. The consequences will be: it will be more difficult to defend Israel."

Opposition Israeli Knesset member and Reform rabbi Ghilad Kariv told CBS News that only half of Israelis had voted for the new government, and a majority are not ultra-religious.

"Our duty is not to give up. Our duty is to remember that many Western democracies are facing major challenges in the last few years, and today," Khariv said. "We are part of a global wave of ultra-nationalism and the rise of the far-right. You see it in Europe. You also see it in America. And our duty is to remember that there are millions of Israelis that are fully committed to the core democratic and liberal values of Israel."

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